Sunday, October 30, 2011

Darkest before dawn

Top of the relatively easy Col Lazoney (only 2700ft climbing) on a nice warm day.

We came into Gressoney feeling good, maybe even too good. The term "loopy" comes to mind. We'd made it through the dreaded "section 4" and managed a little sleep in Niel before completing a short climb in the heat of the day. This was followed by a long gradual downhill where we got in a bit of running and I even took time to soak my legs in a creek. Conversation died down as we strolled along the road happily approaching the 200K mark, our trekking poles scratching along the pavement. Harry started tapping his in time. Tap....tap....tap, tap, tap. I joined in watching Harry fall into a march, bobbing his head. The silliness continued to grow, culminating with Harry planting his poles at his sides and kicking up his heels as if performing a jig. We both burst into laughter and I regretting not whipping out my camera to video it as there is no way our other friends would be able to properly envision the scene.

Baby lamb during our relaxing descent
The goal was to shoot for 2 hours sleep. Harry wanted to clean up, but I headed straight for the cots after eating. Within 40 minutes I was wide awake. I tried futilely for another 15 minutes, but it was useless. Harry was sleeping soundly and I didn't want to wake him. However, I knew laying around for an hour was not going to do me any good. I tried to explain that I could go on ahead and we would most certainly meet up later, but Harry would have none of it. He'd do with only an hour. We headed out just before sunset feeling mostly OK.

Just as we we were leaving town there was an intersection along the path with no course markings. In retrospect, it was probably quite obvious which was the correct way, but we hadn't quite fully gathered our diminishing wits so were overcautious. We stopped to check the map and our GPS programs. As we stood there, we noticed a couple of blonde women walking towards us from the opposite direction, one wearing a race number. It was all a bit confusing in our stunted state so we didn't recognize that it was Anne from Alaska along with Jill. I'm sure Jill thought we were completely out of it. When she told us of the steep section ahead, we tried to explain that we weren't too worried if it was "only steep" (i.e. not "steep and covered in boulders" or "steep and lined muddy" or...). I think the poorly executed humor was lost.

The course took us through some town that seemed deserted before starting the climb. Of course, the climbing was steep as promised, but nothing too extraordinary for the course. At Alpenzu we enjoyed cappuccinos before heading over Col Pinter in the dark. The climb was unremarkable, but the descent was another of those that began steep and then seemed to stretch for ever before reaching the next checkpoint. We were tired and planned another nap once we reached Refugio Crest. Of course, this made the section seem even longer. It didn't help that upon arriving, the check-in and sleeping quarters were separated by a bit of distance. At any rate, we had a decent little sleep followed by more cappuccino.

Looking tired at the top of Pinter

"What goes up, must come down." However, at TDG it always seems to go up again first. The short section (up and) down into Saint Jacques was tedious. We didn't stay long, but it was clear the race was taking its toll on many as we saw people being taped up and patched up here. The sun was about to rise and we'd another climb in front of us. Travelling along a stream in a protected valley at dawn, the temperature plummeted. Layer upon layer went on as I bundled up for the first time since the initial rain storm on day 1. 

Wasn't I just too warm yesterday?
Gran Tournalin was one of the most magnificent refugios. Large and accommodating, they offered a bit more than the standard race fare. After eating Harry and I both leaned back in our booth and dozed off for a few minutes on the wooden benches. It was just enough to feel refreshed and ready to brave the cold again. Like night and day, the minute we exited the shade of the peak, the layers were stripped off on the climb up Col di Nana.

Wasn't I just too cold a few minutes ago?
A brief descent...
another col...
and we were headed into Valtournenche...
...the second to last "Life Station."

For some reason, my memory of this place is a bit hazy. I don't think we slept as we headed up the next climb again during the hottest part of the day. It wasn't difficult, though I lagged a bit behind Harry here. In fact, he somehow managed to walk right past the first checkpoint causing much confusion and unnecessary stress when he informed the volunteers at the next stop.

After the initial climb, this section remained up high with short climbs over minor passes. Initially I'd been very concerned about the extended time above 8000ft, but we were quite acclimated by this point. I was also worried about a repeat of section 4, but it turned out to be quite nice here with plenty of easy trail. We managed most of it before sunset allowing us to enjoy the amazing vistas.

Part of Monte Rosa, I believe
Matterhorn from the Italian side
It was a bit warm.
Harry and the high, alpine cows
Sunset is coming.
We began the long drop into Close in the dark. Not only did it begin with one of the steepest descents on course, but the trail consisted of soft, loose gravel that slid beneath our feet at every step. We proceeded more by sliding than anything and remaining upright became a challenge. Indeed, I failed to do so on at least one occasion. I did't feel anything significant at the time, but I believe this is where the tightness in the front part of my lower leg was exacerbated into something much more. The steepness and loose dirt eventually subsided. It was replaced instead by a sudden lack of ribbons over a wet, marshy field. We'd been warned of the cows propensity to eat ribbons and had actually witnessed some of it on the high sections. I guess they had been through this field before heading up.

After wandering about for a while, Harry and I each pulled out our phones that contained the program Beat had written for just such an occasion. It found our location on the GPS, overlayed it on a map of the course and indicated where we were with respect to the proper path. Brilliant! In fact, we'd probably of gotten back on route even quicker, but we were joined by a couple of Hungarian racers. Explaining the situation to them took as much time as finding the next marker.

We entered Close on a short climb as the trail dropped below the level of town before reaching it. We were tired and a bit grumpy. We should have slept there. We only saw two beds in the checkpoint and, for some reason, I got it in my head to be closer to the top of the next pass before sleeping. Despite the fact that the volunteers weren't sure of the facilities at the next stop and despite the fact that we passed a big tent that seemed to have more cots in it and despite Harry's question as to whether we might be making a mistake, I pushed on. We walked like zombies up the steep climb through the woods. Stumbling and falling asleep on our feet. We didn't talk much, but I could feel Harry's frustration growing along with my own guilt. 

Bruson L'Arp was little more than a small camp around a fire. There was a single tent setup for sleeping and it was pretty full. The bottom of the tent seemed to be lined with some sort of corrugated tin. Wrapped in nothing but our jackets we tossed and turned for an hour. The worst "sleep" of the entire race was no way to end an already difficult night. Upon waking one of the Hungarians, a young lady I'd seen since day one, was sitting in the chair in the tent. I hadn't witnessed her taking a single picture on the course, but for some reason the sight of Harry and I in that horrible state moved her to record the moment. In broken English she uttered, "You guys can sleep anywhere."

At the top of the climb, I made my own record of my condition at the time. It wasn't pretty.

However, it was morning, we were moving and headed into Ollomont: the final of the major "life station" checkpoints and a name I'd set in my mind. After that, it was "only" 50K to the finish. For the first time in days the end actually seemed conceivable, but the challenges were far from over. With one last look at the sun rising over the valley, we crossed the pass and headed down.

Saturday, October 15, 2011



I slammed my trekking poles to the ground, little concern over whether they might crash splintering to pieces. After hopping around on my good, left leg, I settled onto a boulder by the side of the trail completely deflated. My inability to travel downhill without pain had mounted an ever-increasing frustration. The strain in the front of my calf was aggrevated most with my foot pointed downwards and there was pretty much no other way to navigate these steep descents. Catching my toe on a rock and pulling it back simply put me over the edge. Though, in truth, the frustration was worse than the pain.


For days, I'd dreamt of this final descent. With so little runnable terrain and having held back on the few sections there were, I'd kept plenty reserve in my legs for the final push. Unfortunately, things hadn't quite worked out as I'd imagined. Apparently, if you train running downhills all the time, your legs may not be prepared for walking it. The breaking motion required to descend slopes much steeper than just about anything on my local trails did me in. One section, in particular, was so steep and the dirt so loose that we were basically skiing down it. I slipped onto my ass which is when I believe I strained my anterior tibialis. This was the descent after Col Vessanez, a long downhill and the beginning of our worst night of the race due to a bad decision on my part. That story will have to wait.

The next day we made it to Ollomont, the final "life base" (a major checkpoint with extra support and a large area set up with cots for sleeping). After a quick meal we intended a solid 2 hours sleep, but too much noise and activity allowed Harry and I only about an hour each. It was noon and, upon awaking, we discovered that Martina, Harry's girlfriend, had not only snuck treats into our drop bags, but had also shown up to see us off on the final section of the race. This lifted our spirits a bit. We gathered ourselves and prepared for the final 50K. Matina walked with us up the initial climb, but quickly realized that, at this point, Harry and I had pretty much lost the ability to communicate with anyone but each other. Frankly, I'm not even sure it qualified as communication. It was mostly single words and phrases referring to things that had happened over the previous 5 days eliciting grunts, groans or giggles from us both.

Starting on the final stretch should have brought more excitement, but we had become so accustomed to ignoring anything beyond the immediate challenge in front of us that all emotions were fairly tempered. Besides, those last 30 miles would take almost an entire day. For my part, I was also starting to realize that the pain in the front of my leg was more than just "tightness". The climb up Col Champillon was steep, like all the others, but relatively free of supplementary challenges. The descent likewise. However, it was here that my leg started to become a problem. I could jog a little on the smoother sections, but walking brought pain with each step. Still, Harry and I made good time on this section and stayed ahead of the various groups with whom we'd been constantly trading positions on the climbs and descents.

After the small checkpoint at the base of the hill, the elevation profile showed a long, relatively gradual descent into Saint-Rhemy--the last stop before the final climb of the race. Exhaustion was catching up with us both so we found a nice grassy plot next to a stream above a farmhouse just off trail. It was warm and, laying there, we felt like a couple hikers simply lounging in the mountains enjoying a lazy afternoon. We dozed off for 20 minutes of some of the best sleep all week. There were miles still to go and what showed as a very easy downhill on the map would, of course, begin with more climbing. In fact the profile just seemed plain wrong on this section. The uphill went on much longer than expected, the final downhill was steeper than shown and the checkpoint itself had been moved further outside town than the previous year. After so many days we were quite blase about such minor annoyances. However, my leg was really beginning to hurt.

Arriving at the checkpoint, I asked if there was a medic around while Harry hit the food table. I'd heard good things about the medical help at TdG, but there wasn't much to be done for a simple muscle strain other than trying to relieve the pain so I could manage the final stretch. With less than 20 miles remaining in a 200+ mile race, I was prepared to crawl if I had to. Some ointment, a little ice, a couple of anti-inflammatories and I was ready to go, at least mentally. I went back outside to the food table to find Harry sitting at the bench with his head on the table and his eyes closed.

The right thing to do would have been to take a break and sleep. They had a large, quiet room filled with cots. The next stop would be minimal support with sleeping space on the floor and we were unlikely to make it past that without a rest. The problem was that I just couldn't do it. I told Harry to go get some sleep while I ate. I contemplated trying to convince him again to stay and catch me later, but I knew he wouldn't have it. I didn't want a repeat of the previous night. I also knew that it was exactly what I was leading us into when I woke Harry after 20 minutes. I'd just managed to summon the resolve to push forward on my leg and stopping at this point wasn't an option for me. I offered Harry one last shot to stay and sleep. As expected, we started up the long, last climb together.

Merdeux sat just below the final pass of the course, little more than a shed. Harry and I tossed fitfully on the cold, wood floor in what seemed to be a storage room. When the only other occupant left, freeing up the sole foam pad, I was willing to let Harry have it, but he insisted we share. Head to toe on the tiny cushion, we slept. Another racer arrived after around 40 minutes to find water had spilled on the floor. I gave him the canvas tarp I was using as a blanket and left Harry to hopefully get some better rest. Beyond the initial 5 hours stint where my usual light-sleeping habit failed me, I hadn't gone more than an hour straight without waking. I was anxious to get going on my bum leg, but wanted Harry to get as much rest as possible because, either way, I knew what was in store for me. I sat in the hut drinking tea and talking to one of the volunteers who told me stories of his visits to America in broken English.

Col Malatra stood around 9600ft. We moved well up this final climb with only one small incident where a large group of Italians we'd let pass decided to stop for a photo, holding up a string of us on the rocky, technical section lined with ropes. I could hear Harry cursing beneath his breath as he stood there, but I simply pushed through unwilling to delay my inevitable painful descent. As we headed down the other side, Harry's cursing was drown out by my own as the pain in my leg increased with every downward step, reaching its apex when my toe caught that rock.


All manner of negative thought went through my head as I sat there on the boulder. I still had little doubt that I'd finish the race, but I felt betrayed by my own body at a point where I should have been savoring every moment. Harry walked over to me and put up his hand for a high-five. "That was the last climb. We've got this thing done!" I had to smile. Not only was he right, but the role-reversal of Harry reminding me to get over my defeatist attitude forced me to laugh at myself. The pain was worse, but I was moving again.

Eventually, Harry went ahead to the refugio to see if he could find some pain killers for me. Though we'd stuck  through so much over the previous days, I was actually glad for him to go. Not only did I feel like I was holding him back on some of the most runnable trails we'd seen in days, but I really needed to focus all of my energy internally. It was taking everything I had to ignore the shock that went up my leg each time my foot hit the ground. The extra effort further fueled the tiredness that inevitably hits me just before sunrise. I would need one final nap at the checkpoint encouraging Harry to go on. Finishing on my own was fine by me.

Nothing can take away from the camaraderie that Harry and I shared over the course of this race. But, even together, there's a personal aspect to pushing oneself through these type of challenges that's ever present. Having those final miles on my own to reflect simply punctuated the entire experience.

Besides, it's not like we didn't celebrate at the finish!

I had just enough strength left to grab Harry and lift him off the ground.