May 07, 2010

The Patrol des Glaciers, off without a glitch

If there is one thing I have learned, no matter how long your racing career, most competitors have some sort of pre-race nuerosis. Whether its the first race or the 100th, everyone has their methods of dealing with the event build-up. Be you a compulsive list maker, an over-packer, a fly by the seat of your pantser, a last minute buyer of all things suddenly deemed necessary, a regurgitator of useless researched facts to all those around you, subject to bouts of indecision (what should I wear?) or my personal favorite, the last minute meltdown over the smallest thing going awry in perfectly laid plans, we all cope just a little bit differently. One of my post race-nuerosis includes the thought that everyone has one race glitch (glitch being defined as something that can be overcome, not to be confused with a race catastrophe) and as far as I am concerned its best to get that glitch dealt with and out of the way early rather than later.

Control Material

We had a few glitches of our own during the Patrol de Glaciers starting with the Icelandic eruption of Mount Eyjafjalla. The PDG is a famous Swiss ski mountaineering race put on by the Swiss Army. The race has two heats, the longer A and World Cup course covering 4000 meters of ascent and descent across 56 kilometers, from Zermatt to Verbier and the shorter B course which starts in Arolla and covers half the distance. For a view of the A course click here

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If successful we would be the first official female USA team to compete in this event. However, the constant spewing of ash into the European airspace canceled hundreds of flights threatening our start. As the volcano continued its geologic bulimia over the weekend, my teammate Nina and I (who live in Chamonix) began to consider the idea that our third teammate Mona Merrill might in fact not make it over from Breckenridge, Colorado. We waited……and waited, checking numerous airport websites and watching repeat news broadcasts crossing our fingers that her Lufthansa flight would make it over to Frankfurt. It did. Phew. However all flights from Frankfurt to Geneva canceled, so she jumped in the car and drove the ten hours to Zermatt arriving a day before the race. Glitch number one.


Once Mona arrived our team of three ventured to the check in or the “control material” plotting our plan of attack while all our gear was inspected and marked. Tiny zip-tie like markers were placed on all required gear to ensure this was in fact the gear utilized for the race, no mark on your equipment at the end, no finish. This was especially true with the rope. As a patrol we would travel roped for part of the course that crossed glacier and we had placed elastic on the rope to make it more manageable while skiing down. All our gear was deemed a-okay and we headed on to the briefing.

The briefing was held in the Zermatt Church, an impressive spectacle that unfortunately we could not get into due to too many people, so we watched in the neighboring gym via video. Many local dignitaries spoke including the president of Zermatt and the Commandant of the race itself. The briefing oozes pride and tradition and its hard not to get caught up in the festivity. We were wished luck by all in four languages and and told that, “guardian angels would accompany us on our traverse.”

Zermatt Chapel

Last, we received a sandwich benediction by not only the priest of the Zermatt Chapel, but also the Verbier priest. The Patrol even has its own prayer blessing our brothers the glacier, the army men on course, our backpacks and our skis. Furthermore it blesses our sisters the snow, the rope that holds us together and our fellow teammates and volunteers. After a final group benediction we were dismissed and it was hard not to be a little choked up and to feel a bit a part of history.

Last climb up the Col de la Chaux

After dinner it was time to suit up for our midnight start. A rapid fire question session ensued regarding what to wear, what to bring to eat, how much water to bring, what kind of jacket and so on. Shortly after getting dressed I notice my Camelback was leaking and the entire back of my pack was soaked. Genius. Nothing like having a frozen pack heading up to 3800 meters. Enter the previous nuerosis, the meltdown.  After counting to ten I realized something had gotten caught in the seal of the Camelback. I removed it and used the hairdryer in the bathroom to dry the pack. Glitch two.

Good luck Matterhorn chocolate

We lined up at the start while a mono-toned voiced woman counted down the start again in four languages. Three, two, one, the gun was off and the soldiers forming the human start line jumped out of the way. Away we went running down the main street past all the bars with happy revelers toasting our exit. The race had starts every hour on the hour from 10:00pm until 3:00am. Someday I am going to be the one in the bar toasting the heats as they run past.

Nina, Lyndsay and Mona

The first hour and a half of the course is done on foot with skis and boots on pack. We ran up towards the snow doing the endurance race shuffle passing teams on the narrow path. Weaving in and out of poles and over rocks in the dark I heard a crack. “My pole is broken.” Nina’s carbon pole had snapped about three inches above the basket. Damaged but still usable, we kept going hoping to replace it in Arolla at the halfway point. Glitch number three.

Climbing out of Arolla at daybreak

We continued on up and over the Tete Blache at 3800 meters, past the Col de Bertol, down into Arolla arriving in four hours and forty-five minutes, well ahead of schedule. A bad mixture of sports drink during my short Camelback emergency had given me a rough stomach. “This will pass, this will pass” I kept saying to myself. Enter another of my race nuerosis, I repeat these words while I suffer until it does actually indeed pass eventually. Often times I follow it up with a quote from “What About Bob” borrowed from a friend, “I feel good, I feel great, I feel wonderful.” Unable to find our support crew due to the large crowds amassed in Arolla we continued on up and up to the Col de Reidmatten, down the Pas du Chat and skated the eight kilometers across the Lac Dix. The sun was now out and it was getting warm very quickly. “I feel good, I feel great, I feel wonderful.”

Last transition and down

We summited the Rosablanch and the Col de la Chaux and ripped skins for the last time and descended down to Verbier. We finished at 9:52am and since we had left at midnight it was also our race time, we had broken ten hours. It was especially a surprise to me. I had shut my watch off to focus on each climb of the race like it was a separate race (enter nuerosis three). I had not been feeling well but learned that truly your mind is a powerful thing and thanks to my teammates learned just how much I can indeed suffer and move forward, ten hours forward to be exact.

Team USA to the finish

So in fact the race really went off without a hitch. Upon further inspection I realized that perhaps in fact my pre-race nuerosis regarding race glitches is faulty. Perhaps they are not really glitches at all, just a normal part of racing and what defines you as a racer is how you deal with each glitch, is the glitch half full or half empty? Perhaps in fact glitches can be a useful use of converting negative to positive energy flow - better my Camelback leaked when I can fix it. Broken pole though incredibly annoying could account for added adrenaline. Spewing volcano can re-enforce just how much racing means to us all. Missed support meeting could account for saved time and added pride we did the whole race start to finish on our own and lousy stomach can teach just how much it really is…all…in…your…head. Cause it is.