Friday, October 26, 2012

Failing into Success (part One of Some)

You would expect that an extreme event covering 180 miles of very rough mountain trails with more than 72,000ft of climbing and very little in the way of support to require equally extremes level of training, preparation and execution. Add to that the physical fatigue and sleeplessness necessary to do finish in 5-1/2 days and you'd think that everything would have to go nearly perfectly in order to succeed. Training I wrote about previously. Using mostly high-sierra hiking and no 100-mile races would either turn out brilliantly or disastrously as training for the Alps. As for preparation, it consisted mostly of time we spent on the course the week prior to the race and Harry's meticulous studying of every mile of the maps down to the exact location of water sources on the outskirts of the tiniest little alpine towns through which we'd pass. Execution, however, is a funny thing. Success in long events, and especially in these VERY long events, often has less to do with executing every single aspect of your plan to the letter than it does with how you handle and recover from the missteps, mistakes, and even complete lapses in judgement that seem inevitable in such an undertaking. In short, success often comes from how you deal with failures along the way. We had a few.

Photo courtesy of Chris Marolf

After spending most of Monday on last minute preparations, race check-in, attending briefings, eating spaghetti and then sitting around fretting until the 10pm start time, we finally donned our packs and headed over to the start line in the middle of town. While PTL is the big brother race of the UTMB in terms of distance and difficulty, it shares none of the fame of its famous sibling. In fact, it's virtually unheard of by most people...except, that is, those in Chamonix during a certain week in late August. While there were fewer than 200 runners in the race, the number of people lining the streets of town must have been at least triple that. It seemed like the sort of send-off one might for a famous road race featuring world-class speedsters, not a bunch of amateurs heading out to hike a bunch of remote mountains in an event that isn't even technical considered a race. It was hard not to get caught up in the enthusiasm, running through town and slapping hands with cheering spectators. That is, until, the climbing started before we even left the road.

View from initial climb (during the day)
Having covered most of the initial 50K of the race during our reconnaissance trip, we knew to expect this 3-1/2 mile "warm-up" to ascend at rate of 1000ft per mile. Harry and I set ourselves nearer the back of the pack to keep from pushing too hard in the cool night air, but inevitably, the conga-line chain of runners necessitated passing a few parties just to keep an even pace. As I warmed up from both effort and excitement, I felt sweat running down my back. Then I realized something wasn't quite right. The amount of moisture was too much. I told Harry and we pulled over to check my pack.

Sure enough, it was dripping. I confirmed the lid on my bladder was fine so it was a leak. I'd had an issue earlier in the week, but it stopped after some adjustment so I thought all was OK. I was wrong. I tried turning the pack upside down in case it was leaking from the bottom. It seemed to help a little, but made it difficult to drink. Harry and I agreed to share his water which was going to be a challenge. Less than an hour into an event that was to go on for days and I'd already managed an equipment failure. We headed out. We were now officially the last people in the race.

I tried to keep my head straight as we continued the climb to the top of the pass. Many people stopped here to take pictures or enjoy the view. Since we'd been here before we headed straight down. Down is good. At least, it was here. For the most part things went along smoothly for a while. Down to the river, up to the refuge where Harry topped off his water, then up and over the next pass. After that it was a long downhill.before the monster climb up Le Buet. During these wee hours of the first night time passed unnoticed and was nearly morning before we'd start up the 5000 foot climb (in a little over 3.5 miles).

It's difficult to explain just how steep some of these climbs are unless you've been there. I think "relentless" is the first word that comes to mind though there are a couple breaks. It starts up from a river along a fairly exposed rock cliff. It then cuts inward and cuts up a deeply overgrown trail. During our pre-race trip, this section was quite warm. It is steep enough that were the ground muddy, it would become almost impassible. There's a short break as the trail crosses some streams (the last water for a long while) and then it heads straight up a dirt slope. There are actually some slight switchbacks on this bit, but the path straight up the middle actually had better footing on occasion thanks to occasional rocks. After climbing for what seems like an eternity you reach a big plateau. You may think you are done, but really it is maybe half-way to the peak. In fact, you can't even see the peak from here.

Looking down from the initial part of the climb
The trail is in that brush somewhere

View down from the plateau

This is where we put the poles away and head up to the right.

From this point, the trail starts to get "interesting". Harry and I put our poles away because we knew it was now scrambling time. We would also need to have our hands free for the cables on the other side of the rocks. They were mainly for safety, but there were some places where you had to pull on them a bit. This was actually the tamest cabled section we would cross. Once past the cables there was a brief traverse followed by more steep climbing to the 10,000+ foot peak.

A view of the exposure on the cable-protected part of the trail
The blue dot just to the lower-right of the middle in this photo is actually a trail marker
In our preparation hike we had a beautiful warm day at the peak. During the race it was still early and there was a strong, cold wind. We didn't stick around. We also wanted to head down the next set of cables leading down. We didn't want to chance being stuck behind a team that was less than confident in their descending skills. Luckily, a hearty and capable group of Brits were the only ones in front of us. This part of the "trail" was the steepest thing I have ever descended without wearing a harness.

The British team heading down in front of me (photo Harry)
That ridge-line along the right side is basically the path we descended (photo Harry)

From here there was a brief traverse followed by more cables and then a narrow trail along the side of a steep slope. The trail was pretty mellow, but the drop-off continued to be both daunting and beautiful. After a bit of meandering between cairn markers the "trail" led to a large plateau known as Le Cheval Blanc. Here sat a large post marking the border between France and Switzerland. It also marked the beginning of our long descent. We could see all the way to the dam on the far side of the lake where our first checkpoint lay some 12 kilometers away. W'd first have a chain-protected drop followed by a steep, loose-scree downhill before a fairly technical descent through a canyon. The stream through which would be our first water source since the big climb. Harry and I had managed our water well, but I was definitely going to need it by the time we reached the stream.

Our destination is the other side of the lake. The route went the other side of the ridge to the right. (photo Harry)
The descent went without incident, but by the time we began filling our water, I was starting to feel my first spell of sleepiness. I tend to get my most significant tired spells in the mornings after not sleeping. It already approaching noon, but the climbing and technical trail had kept my adrenaline going through the early hours. I decided to mix myself a cold coffee to get some caffeine into my system. We were heading onto some easier trails so it was good to have a little "kick".

I've no problem in general going for long periods in silence and enjoy my solitude more often than not. However, I can get quite "chatty" when sharing my passions with other like-minded people or when simply trying to pass the time on the trail. It seems this trait tends to amplify when I'm tired perhaps as a sub-conscious impulse to keep myself awake. I'm afraid that my little dose of stimulant from the coffee sent it into overdrive as we fell in line behind the British team who had caught up during our stop at the stream. I wasn't really even aware of it until Harry piped in behind me, surprised by how much I was babbling on and on.

Despite my annoying trail demeanor, it did pass the time. We arrived at the checkpoint before I knew it. As soon as we walked into the restaurant area I saw a surprisingly familiar face. It was Daniel, Beat's team partner. We expected them to be quite far ahead of us. Apparently, Beat had met with some blister issues and was tending to them. He was a bit concerned about them so early in the race and we even talked about the possibility of needing to take Daniel onto our team if things went south further on. I didn't consider it too seriously because I know Beat too well. He doesn't have an issue finishing races regardless of suffering. In fact he tends to do better the more suffering there is (he would go on to finish not only this race, but the 200-mile TdG a week later).

Harry and I were feeling good and didn't want to stop just yet especially since we had packed nice sandwiches for this first day's lunch. We continued along the trail which was quite mellow a while and stopped in a sunny spot among wild blueberry bushes.  Beat and Daniel passed us here and we figured we wouldn't see them again though they were less certain. The trail from here descended gradually into the next valley at Les Marecottes. From there we had a relatively small climb up and over Le Coeur before descending into Martigny Croix.

Photo Sylenius

Though the initial descent was quite steep (as usual), Martigny is a beautiful, serene wine-growing region of Switzerland. While we would just be skirting the edge of town here, we decided it would be a good opportunity to check for some food. As it happens we saw Beat and Daniel coming out of town and they told us about a little store with a small cafe that served pizza. We made our way there purchased some soda and ordered a pizza to split.

It turned out that the girl working in this shop was signed up for UTMB and was very enthusiastic to discuss our race and her excitement about her upcoming challenge. I have to think that we were perhaps in some of our highest spirits at this point in the race. The weather was good. We'd tackled the initial tough sections without problem and the remainder of the day had been relatively mellow. Now we were enjoying some hot food and good conversation with this cute, young Swiss girl in this wonderful setting. Life was good.

We knew there was a massive 6000ft climb coming up, but it stretched over a longer distance and was at a much lower altitude than Le Buet. It just didn't seem nearly as daunting, at least, not on paper. Of course the reality would be quite different than expectation. We'd be 45 miles into the race having already climbed and descended more than 19,000ft each before heading up that pass. On top of that, we had yet to sleep and we were heading into our second night.

For the time being we may have been feeling good, but the truth is, we had no idea what lay ahead...

1 comment:

Danni said...

Beautiful. Nice friend to share water. Yay!