Going for broke in Corsica
I did it! We did it! Officially ran the route of the Tour de France and raised $166,000 in the process…I cannot believe it. I arrived in Maine on Saturday evening after a 36 hr bonanza of traveling, and even after two full nights of sleep and being surrounded by my family in celebration, it’s still a hard thing to get my head around. 4 days ago Alex and I were out on the unforgiving Corsican roads going for broke in our final hours.
There’s a lot to be said and a lot that still will need to be said, but I’ll start this post from the beginning of the 90 miles and follow up tomorrow with more.
Alex and I tucked ourselves into bed at 6 pm on Wednesday, hoping to get some sleep before starting the 90 miles at midnight. I wanted to start at midnight because running from the dark into the light seemed much more enticing than running from the light into the dark. (I discovered on Thursday evening in the last 5 hours that this was more true than I had anticipated) We tossed and turned and got up for snacks and water and around 9 pm we had nearly decided to just get out of bed and get started already. By 10, however, we were both sort of asleep and stayed that way, in fits and starts, until midnight, when our alarm went off. We packed our bags up for the last time, by now a routine we could do with our eyes closed, and headed out into Ajaccio to find a bar that would serve us up some coffee before taking off. Unfortunately almost every place was closed or closing, and it was not until an hour later that we found a coffee machine at a gas station and eagerly dropped our coins in to get two coffees each.
We finally started at 2 am, and in the first 2 1/2 miles I saw 7 roadside memorials for people who had died in car accidents, and 3 pairs of glowing eyes in the bushes lining the streets. It was a nerve-wracking way to start. The eyes went away as the road climbed up and up, but the memorials did not and by mile 12 I had seen 14. Yikes. I’ve run in the dark plenty of times before, but it was an entirely new feeling running on an obviously dangerous mountain road that I am completely unfamiliar with and which is obviously twisting up and up away from civilization and towards a more wild nature. Running uphill right away was also a weird thing, I might not have noticed it so distinctly had I not peered down at my Garmin to see I had climbed 1400 feet in 4 miles. But mostly those first 15 or 20 miles went by physically unnoticed, and my focus was more outwards, taking note of the palm-sized grasshoppers and spiders dotting the roads, and any animal-like noise coming from the woods, and the squint of car lights approaching in the distance.
Early morning, I got a little too confident in my eyesight and decided I didn’t need my headlamp, which worked for about two minutes until I stumbled over a rock and went down hard on both knees and palms, bloodying them up and giving me a good laugh – a true proof in point that there’s always something new that can take you down. After pausing to wash the blood off and clean my knees up a bit, I managed to repeat the feat a mile later, again tripping over a rock and again going down hard on both knees. Sheesh.
The sun came up on the other side of the mountains and I hit my first 30 miles around 9 am. I had decided to run with my Garmin but break up the distance into three 30 milers, since that’s what I am used to. Alex brought me coffee and croissants, and I took a nice 15 minute break. The next 30 miles were HOT. And sunny. And hot. And ridiculously beautiful. The road curved up around mountains with two more big passes, and then down towards seaside towns and back up again. The water around Corsica is the most astounding blue and it was never out of my eyesight for more than half an hour for the entire day. By afternoon I was too nauseous to eat anything and on most of my drink breaks I was managing only a couple pistachios or a bite of a peach. Probably a mistake.
Late afternoon, the backs of my arms started itching like crazy and I spent the better part of ten miles simply focusing on not itching them. By the time the sun was going down, I looked down at my legs and realized I had large swaths of red dotted rashes all over my quads, shins, and back of my calves. My knees were swollen and bruising. The road I was on was no longer beautiful but intolerably miserable. It wound around and around and around the coastal mountain range, not going down towards the sea nor up towards the summit, but crusted endlessly mid-mountain, winding around in so many curves that I had the distinct sensation I was going in circles. The road was no longer marked with distances, there were no towns to speak of, and it felt like we were an awful maze with no way out and no idea where we were. No cell phone service, no place names, no road signs. It felt like an elaborate, endless trap and more than once I wondered if we had somehow missed a turn off the mountain.
With 16 miles to go, I grabbed my whistle from the car, explaining to Alex it was “feeding time” and though I had no idea what kind of animals were around in this land, I had my suspicions. Two minutes later, Alex has just passed me by, heading down the mountain finally, and I hear some loud chewing in the trees just ahead of me. Just by the sound of it, I know right away it’s a wild boar. Not to mention that the boar is the only animal I am absolutely sure lives in Corisca. I pause, reduced again to trembling fear, just like on that day in the very first week. Trying to be smarter this time, I blow into my whistle as hard as I can, because I’m thinking maybe that will help scare it or them off. Instead, the boar starts grunting at me and I hear his slobbery chewing getting closer. So I ditch the whistle and instead book it, as quickly and quietly as possible, up the mountain – once again, just like that day in the first week and once again not sure of the logic in running in either direction, because for all I know there are more boars in the direction I’m now running towards.
I had no cell reception, so I waited a couple hundred yards away, shaking and shouting Alex’s name, until finally enough time passed for him to wonder why I hadn’t passed him yet and to drive back up towards me. After that, Alex drove right behind me until I finished. I sprinted the next 4 or 5 miles, monumentally frightened and wanting the time to move from dusk to night as quickly as possible in hopes that the boars had to sleep at some point. And after those 5 miles is when it all started to fall apart.
The last ten miles took so long, and sucked so much out of me that they deserve an entire chapter in the book I hope to write. My head and face were burning up while the rest of my body was shaking with the chills. I had to stop and pee every five minutes but I had a thirst that I thought I would never catch up with. The physical pain on my hips and knees was bad, but what was the worst was the nausea that had been developing all day and which had bloomed into a full-tilt dizzying ocean of nausea. Talking was out of the question, and even just running with my mouth open was enough to make me want to puke. At some point I think I realized those bumps I had seen earlier must be sun poisoning, and the fever and debilitating nausea I’m experiencing must be because of that, but I also think I was so delirious with exhaustion that I just assumed that’s how it feels to get to 80 miles. And I’m sure it was a little of both.
The final ten miles were five miles up the last mountain pass of the Tour, and then a steep five miles down towards Calvi. Let me say that running 5 miles up a mountain in a dark so thick that you can’t see four feet ahead of you even with car headlights shining on from behind is no fun at all. There’s no joy in getting to the top of the mountain if you can’t see anything and it’s incredibly disorienting and for me, discouraging. We had to go up countless hills before we even got to the point where, according to the TDF website, we officially started going up. And then I would make the mistake of lifting my head and seeing some headlights shining way way above us, impossibly high above us, and I knew that that meant I had to run not only that far, but also that high. Alex had to talk me through the entire last 10 miles, telling me stories about Maine, and Richmond, and all the things we’d eat and drink and do with our friends and family once we were back home.
I finally reached the mountain pass, where, disgustingly, there was not even a sign to mark my progress. No black Col sign I had come to appreciate so much, no altitude marking, nothing, just an obvious pass through one side of the mountain to the other. There was TDF writing on the road and at this point I’ve never hated cyclists more in my life for the simple fact that I still had five quad pounding miles ahead of me and they had done this with the luxury of wheels. After a couple miles of painfully steep decline, I realized that I wanted to get this over with more than I wanted to avoid the pain of running quickly. So I switched from my shuffle-slog into one final last kick, running the last 3 miles as fast as I could, giving every single last thing I could, laying it all to rest out on the pitch black road.
When I finally did finish, at 1:05 am, my knees and elbows were crusted with blood, and my palms dotted with blood blisters from falling down, my skin pickled and covered in a sun rash, my ankles swollen red and hot, dirt everywhere, and my face completely flushed with fever. It was, after so many runs in my life, the first time I felt so deeply that I could not possibly have gone one extra step. So often people have commented upon seeing me after a 30 mile day that I look great, considering. I’ve always felt conflicted about that – sure it’s nice I can run that much and not look awful, but on the other hand, I want to look awful! I want to look like I’ve been through something. And finally, at 1 am on Friday morning, I looked like I had been through something. 23 hours, 110 degree heat, 8000 feet of elevation gain, all of it was written on my face, etched in my body. Finally, I looked like hell. And it felt great.