12. Sept. – 18. Sept. 2010
Photos for this report are here
Once the train had left Geneva I was pretty certain that doing Tor des Geants was a stupid idea. I was on the train on my way to Courmayeur, and all the doubts I had about this race were suddenly breaking into the open again: these races in Switzerland were much harder than what I was used to in California. I had been schooled already twice this summer. Once in June when I DNF’ed my first race, and then again three weeks ago when I struggled to finish an 80km race. The climbs were longer and steeper in Switzerland, the terrain more technical, the aid stations less well stocked, and as a result I was a back-of-the-pack rather than a middle-of-the-pack runner. My training was comparable to what I had done previously for 100 mile races, but in no way had I adjusted it for a 200 mile race.
I figured I would put my nerves at ease after Saint Gervais, because the stretch between St. Gervais and Chamonix was covered by a map that I had purchased for the race. I would follow along on the map as the train slowly made its way between the villages, get a sense for the scale of the map in real life, and hopefully realize that the distances were not as bad in real life as they looked on the map. I had spent quite a bit of time tracing the race on the various maps that were required for this 336km course, and inevitably I always got confused. There were too many passes, valleys, rifugios, and villages to keep it all straight. No matter how you looked at it, it was impossible to grasp this race in more detail than that it started in Courmayeur and surrounded the Val d’Aosta in one giant counterclockwise loop. We would first follow the Alta Via 2 in the south, then the Alta Via 1 in the north, as these trails intersect all the tributaries to the main Aosta valley. See a map and an elevation profile. In the allotted 150 hours we would pass 35 villages, 30 lakes, and 25 passes over 2000m. We would also gain over 24,000m of elevation and descend an equal amount.
To my horror I discovered that real life was even worse than I had imagined. The train took forever to pass a distance of a few centimeters on the map. If it took the train this long, how would I ever manage a race that covered three of these maps? By the time I got to Chamonix I knew this race was a big mistake. I thought of running one day so I could say that I had tried, and then get out of there. My spirits were low, so I went to McDonalds and had a Big Mac with fries and a Coke. I did feel a bit better after that and wandered back to the bus stop where I met a few French runners who were in a pretty chipper mood, waiting for the bus to take us through the Mont Blanc tunnel. One of them was Gilles, with whom I would run quite a bit in the following days.
At the hotel in Courmayeur I met Beat Jegerlehner, Craig Slagel (friends from the US), and their entourage. Compared to them I was definitely travelling light. I had one drop bag for the entire race and no crew. (The hotel was fine; although they couldn't find my reservation they still had a double room for €70. When I checked out the next morning they dropped the rate to whatever I had on hand in 10€ bills; it happened to be 30€).
It was late in the day, so we headed over to the sports center for the dinner and the race briefing, which lasted until after 9pm. Back at the hotel I slept well and had time for one last gear check in the morning, since the race didn’t start until 10am on Sunday morning. Most importantly in hindsight, I laid on my stomach and blindly taped the lower part of my back with gauze and tape where my backpack had caused sore spots in the past. In this case I managed to apply my bandage so well that I wouldn’t need to change it for the next six days (I must admit that my lower back was itchy for weeks afterwards). (My backpack contained food and water, first aid equipment, a full change of clothes for cold or wet weather, and obviously a camera).
The start of the race was in the church square, and after the obligate goose bumps and encouragement by the race officials we were off. We briefly followed the town streets, which were lined with spectators hollering and ringing cow bells, but soon we started on to the first of many endless climbs. I felt pretty good. The nerves from yesterday were gone, as we finally got down to work. At this point it still felt like a regular race. All 350-odd runners had plenty of energy and were in good spirits and a chatty mood. There was a helicopter overhead filming the runners. It was sunny and just the right temperature, and the forecast was good until at least Thursday.
We reached Col d’Arp (2571m) around noon and headed down to the first town of La Thuile. In the distance we could see the glaciers of the Gran Paradiso mountains and the valley we would follow next. I was running much of this stretch with Craig Slagel, and while we were conserving energy we had a chance to catch up on things.
Part of the conversations also revolved around race strategies. Tor des Geants is divided into seven sectors with a life base at the end of each sector. At these life bases we could access our drop bag (we all got a big yellow 40l drop bag for extra clothes and food) eat, shower and sleep as required. However, the race was intended as a single stage race, and because there were seven sectors and six days it was not possible to spend time each night at one of these life bases or treat the race as a stage race. There were no pacers and I didn't have a crew, so I had to rely on whatever gear I carried between life bases, and carry the food I wanted between aid stations.
This was the inaugural running of this race, and since there is no historic data, I spent a long time trying figure out an approach to this race, i.e., how to structure it and where to sleep. Should this race be considered as six 50k races with several hours of sleep between each one? Or should it be treated as a hard 100m race that takes about 48 hours, followed by another hard 100m race for which we have 4 days time? Was it better to start slow and treat Tor des Geants as a week-long hike? There was really no obvious solution. The only thing I knew for sure that in terms of distance and elevation gain it was like two Hardrocks (probably the hardest 100m race in the US) back to back, and I was aware of only one person who had done that previously. With Craig I agreed that it was probably best to run until we really needed to sleep, so we wouldn’t lose any time trying to fall asleep, and from then on just sleep briefly whenever it was necessary. The course included 49 aid stations (some serving only beverages), including several rifugios or mountain huts where it was possible to sleep, but only for two hours at most.
We reached the town of La Thuile (1435m) in good shape. This was the first aid station with food and I was pleased to see that they had good tasting cheese, dried meat, and dark chocolate. For the next six days I would survive on this diet. Aid stations with food were about 5 hours apart, so we had to carry our own food. For me, this was a selection of dark chocolate, Snickers, M&M’s, almonds, and raisins. (The beverages of choice were water and Coke at the aid stations. Occasionally a shot of espresso, but never any red wine or beer, which was standard fare at all aid stations) In other words, no high tech food, energy bars, or sport drinks at all). Luckily, I never had an upset stomach or difficulties keeping food down.
In this case, the descent from Passo Alto lead through a long boulder field where the trail was barely visible. The Alta Via trails were always marked with yellow triangles and the black number 1 or 2, sometimes there were also yellow arrows. The race organizers had added short yellow flags like they are used in landscape design. These flags also had small reflective tags which made them visible at night. Craig was now behind me and I was running with an older Italian guy who was hard to keep up with during the descent of the boulder field. I had somehow assumed that we would now descend the valley to Valgrisenche where the first life base was located, and then call it a day. However, the Italian gentleman pointed out to me runners re-ascending the steep other side of the valley a bit further down: we still had another high pass to go before reaching Valgrisenche!
A little later we reached an aid station at Promoud (2022m) a farm where cows are tended in summer and cheese is made. The aid station was managed by the shepherds or farmers, and although they were supposed to serve only beverages the farmers were offering us their home-made bread and cheese. This would happen again and again throughout the race, and I was always amazed at how welcoming and hospitable the locals were, not to mention how understanding or tolerant of this strange sport of ultrarunning. Shortly into the next climb it started to get dark and cold, and some afternoon clouds began to blow drizzle in our direction. I got out my headlamp and a sweater and kept ascending the pass with Francois, one of the French guys I had met in Chamonix. After darkness set in the trail got really steep and in places we had to climb rocks and hold onto ropes in the driving drizzle and wind.
Once we reached the Colle de la Crosatie (2838m) we could see the lights of runners far below us, but it was not quite clear how we would get down there. In fact, a bit later, now running in a group of about four guys, we lost the trail. The only way to find the trail at night was through the reflective tags on the little flags, but if those flags and reflective tags were gone, it was nearly impossible to find the way, because it was often so faint. In this case, cows must have eaten the flags, because we soon found ourselves in a large heard of cows. Wherever we shone our lights there were reflections like from the flags, but they were the eyes of the cows, silently looking at us as they were chewing their cud. It was a very eerie feeling and it took about ten minutes, until we finally found the trail.
We now continued another endless and steep descent in the dark, and by the time we reached Planaval (1554m) at about 10pm I was ready for this day to be done. Unfortunately we still had several kilometers to run up the next valley until we would reach Valgrisenche (1660m). The drizzle had started up again, and it was now something between drizzle and rain. I tried to will it to go away so I wouldn’t have to put on my jacket, but once I was wet I gave in and put my jacket on. Shortly before Valgrisenche we got lost once more because we didn’t pay attention and went around a caution tape clearly marking a turn. We must have been tired, but around midnight we finally arrived at the first life base in a community center in Valgrisenche. I quickly ate some pasta and then asked for a mattress to sleep. My plan was to sleep for a couple of hours, but if that didn’t work out, to leave as soon as possible. After about 15 minutes it was evident that I was too wound up to sleep, so I got up and readied leave. I checked the weather and it wasn’t raining, but as I prepared to leave a few minutes later it was pouring again. I went back in and changed into my rain gear. Once I finally left Valgrisenche it was around 2am and I only had a warm meal to show for.
Within minutes it stopped raining, but it was definitely chilly. I climbed past a high dam and through a forest towards the Rifugio Chalet de l’Epee (2377m). I was alone on this section, and by about 4am I reached the Rifugio, which was warm and inviting. I drank some Coke and ate a Snickers, used the restroom, and headed back out into the cold as soon as possible. The weather had cleared up, and the stars were now clearly visible in the night sky. Again alone, I climbed about another 1.5 hours until the trail got steep and rocky and I arrived at the Col Fenetre de Torrent (2840m). Even though I was essentially alone, there were always lights visible head and behind me, and occasionally I would get passed by someone.
The view from the Col Fenetre de Torrent was spectacular. It was pitch black, but straight below me I could see a procession of lights descending. I had been warned in advance that this descent was nearly overhanging, and in the dark it certainly looked like we were about to descent in a glass elevator. I descended the narrow hairpin trail carefully and was very glad that I had poles. (This is the first time I used poles in a race and the first time I really thought they were necessary). Occasionally I stopped and looked back up at the lights that were behind and seemed to be straight above. Hopefully nobody would slip and fall! The steep descent continued until dawn and shortly after I removed my headlamp I arrived at the aid station in the teeny but cute village of Rhemes Notre Dame (1723m). The quiet town was just waking up but I felt like I had already had a day’s worth of excitement since leaving Valgrisenche last night. I ate some cheese, meat, and chocolate, made sure I and my equipment were in working order, and headed out again. As I climbed up through a forest I could see how steep and narrow that gulley on the other side of the valley was that we had just descended. The temperature was still cold on the ascent to Col Entrelor (3007m). This was going to be the second of three passes I would have to climb before dark today. This was yet another three or four hour climb which culminated in a steep and rocky ascent to a pass on the far horizon. I often wondered how there could be a trail through these boulder fields to a pass that seemed so remote and hard to reach.
By the time I reached the pass the reality set in of what had been dawning on me since yesterday afternoon: this race was tough and relentlessly hard. Hard in a way I had never experienced before. Hard like a physical presence you can touch and feel; something that would not let up even a bit for several days to come. It felt like a personal encounter with this hardness, and it would take every bit of concentration and determination I had to overcome it.
I asked a first aid guy where we had to go from here, and he pointed to a glacier in the distance; a large valley and many kilometers between us and it. “See? The next pass is just to the left of that glacier.” In between was another endless descent, a deep valley, followed by the longest climb of the day. It was about 10am, I had been on the go since 2am, and it would be at least 8pm before I would reach the next life station. I was nearly in tears. I quickly headed down a boulder field to the aid station which looked like a bus shelter and had been dropped there by a helicopter. Some Coke, the sight of the helicopter resupplying the aid station, and the undeniably beautiful landscape helped lift my spirits.
Even if this was the hardest thing I had done in my life, the scenery was definitely spectacular. If this adventure was going to be hard, it was also shaping up to be big and special. I felt privileged to be alive, privileged to be able to experience this magnificent landscape in the most human manner possible: by running freely from one horizon to the next, again and again, for days and nights on end. I resolved to finish this day and see how I could stay in the game tomorrow.
The downhill was quite runable, a long single-track leading through alpine meadows and past a couple of lakes. After a while though, the descent just kept on going, which seemed to be the story of this race. I was on my own for a long time, engaged in my own world and my own thoughts. I do keep myself pretty good company, and if there wasn’t anything to debate I would just take in the views and enjoy the enormity of it all. At times I would try to find an answer the nagging question: "why do you do this kind of events?" After some introspection I just concluded that there is no deep answer to this question. Running, like walking or hiking, seems like such a natural activity that it doesn't need to be explained or defended. As far as the appropriate amount of running is concerned, there is some truth to the saying that “if something is good, more is better, and too much is just right.” I happen to have been born with a high tolerance for “too much,” although I knew the limits for this appetite were going to be tested and satisfied once and for all in the coming days.
The weather was a gorgeous with very clear views and a hint of fall in the air. After an hour or two I got to the tree line, and about there I met up with Gilles, the French guy I had met at the bus stop in Chamonix. Gilles is Parisian, in his sixties, and had run large stretches of the course during the past summer as training runs. He was a great source of information, but also good athlete and a really nice guy. He and I would run together every so often in the coming days. As we entered the woods the trail got steeper and the weather got hotter. There were two other Italians running with us, and I mention this because I was struck by how the guy running behind his colleague kept gesticulating with his arms and hands in true Italian fashion whenever he spoke, even though his friend got no benefit from the animation, and even though he could have put his arms to better use on this downhill. We finally reached the tiny town of Eaux Rousses (1666m) at the valley floor, but not before we got the chance to study in detail the steep ascent that awaited us on the other side of the valley. It had taken nearly three hours for this descent.
We made a quick stop at the aid station to eat some cheese, meat, chocolate, oranges, and cookies. A sign said that Col Loson was 4.5 hours away. I hoped to get there in 4 hours. Gilles was evidently feeling great; he took off and left me to follow a father and daughter team. For the first hour we climbed steeply up a forest. After that the trail entered a long and beautiful valley, in which one could see herds of chamois grazing. I started to lose a bit of speed as the trail resumed a steeper climb to the next plateau. Once I reached it I was really out of steam. I don’t know if I was low on calories or if it was just because this was the third monster climb of the day, but the next couple of hours were to be the darkest of the entire race. My pace slowed to a crawl and my only ambition was not to stop until I reached the pass. Meanwhile, it seemed like other runners were blowing past me. I finally reached the Col Loson (3296m) feeling winded like I have rarely felt before. The climb from Eaux Rousses had taken a bit over 4.5 hours, so it wasn’t a complete disaster, but the goal of reaching Cogne, the next life base, before dark, was starting to look optimistic.
The view down the other side of Col Loson, the highest point of this race, was a now familiar sight: a steep and rocky descent, in places secured in places with ropes, followed by lush alpine meadows and meandering streams. Below those was the tree line and hidden from view, much further down, the town of Cogne, somewhere in the valley. The shadows were getting long, so there was no time to waste. Luckily I rebound quickly from feeling weak, and I was able to recover on the downhill. I wasn’t exactly racing at this point, but I was making a valiant effort to keep up with those who were running both the downhills and the straights. Eventually we made it to Rifugio Vittorio Sella (2579m), a group of long buildings which apparently were once a hunting lodge of an Italian king and are now a popular destination for randonee skiing in winter. I helped myself to the usual cheese, meat, chocolate, and Coke, but I got on my way before I was tempted to spend more time in this welcoming place. I wanted to get as much from the fading daylight as I could.
After a few minutes I caught up with a couple of young Italian guys as they pointed out a dark brown fox to me. They were in a remarkably good mood. I was pleased that Day 2 was drawing to an end, that I was still in the game, and feeling better than I could have hoped for on Col Entrelor or Col Loson. We struck up a conversation and I got a chance to show off my limited Italian skills as we ran into darkness and were forced to turn on our head lights (it always got dark around 7:20pm). Once the footing of the trail got better I called home to find out how Mark’s loose teeth were doing (he had been hit in the face by a seesaw on Sunday evening – everything was OK at home). Eventually the descent turned endless, just like the others had done before, and I felt like this really ought to be done by now. But it wasn’t. Patience was rewarded about 1.5 hours later, around 9:30pm, when Cogne (1532m) did finally show up. It is a relatively large town and the Italians and I were cheered on by the locals. We settled into a sprint to the life base to confirm that this day was ending on a positive note.
The life base was in a gym. I ate some pasta, minestrone, and a couple of yogurts. In my drop bag I found a wooden medal which the organizers slipped in there as a recognition for a completed sector. At future life bases I would always find a new medal with the profile of a different mountain animal in my drop bag. It was a thoughtful touch and it exemplified the degree to which this inaugural race was organized! Sleeping wasn’t going to be a problem tonight, even though the cots were in the same room as the dining area. I asked a volunteer to wake me up in 2.5 hours and drifted off into a fitful sleep. My mind was so wound up and my dreams so intense, repetitive, and singular that I wasn’t even sure I was sleeping or laying awake. The constant going and coming of other runners and the general noise in the gym didn’t help provide any rest either. Eventually I jumped out of bed early, got my stuff together, ate some more food, and headed out into the darkness of Day 3. It was after 2:00am. Being awake was more restful than sleeping!
On the map Sector 3 looked easy: About 47km with only one climb at the beginning to the Fenetre the Champorcher, and from there a very long descent (about 30km) to Donnas. Could this be a recovery day? It was tempting to trust the elevation profile, even though it had been spectacularly wrong on Sector 2, where it showed only two instead of three big passes.
I left Cogne feeling pretty good. There weren’t many runners on the trail and for the first couple of hours I was ascending through a forest on my own. The problem with running at night is that you have absolutely no sense of direction. My mind tried to form some mental image of where I was going, but frankly, the image was as reliable as if somebody put a bag over my head, spun me around a few times, and said “walk.” The four hours before dawn (i.e., between about 2:30 and 6:30 were as timeless as they were featureless. The only orientation was usually the sound of a stream somewhere down deep in a ravine, the light of my headlight illuminating the immediate path in front of me and, guiding me into the dark, the reflections from a couple of yellow flags in the distance. Until about 4am I moved along at a decent pace, but it was hard to know how fast I really was, because I didn’t have any reference points. Also, the hours between 4am and 6:30am was the time I dreaded the most, because inevitably I got tired in a way that was impossible to fight, and as a result I slowed down significantly.
This morning was the first time I started “seeing stuff.” The hallucinations became more pronounced later on, but now it started with faces that I saw in the contours of the rocks or stones on the trails. They were often like medallions with recognizable faces. The visions were pleasantly surprising and entertaining, rather than worrying.
We reached a high plane in the early morning hours (other runners had caught up to me now) and suddenly it started getting very cold and there was frost on the ground. I had to stop and put on a hat and mittens, but I still couldn’t warm up. Within minutes I also got very tired and started falling asleep as I was walking. My main state of mind was now dreaming, but it constantly snapped back to running mode like a defective fluorescent lamp that is trying to come on. Additionally I also became confused. At one point I left the dirt road that we were now following and climbed a slope, because that was where a yellow flag had been placed a couple of meters next to the road, and I thought I had to follow the flags carefully.
Luckily we soon arrived at the Rifugio Sogno (2532m) where I sat down for some food and warmed up until I was coherent again. Other runners seemed equally dazed, but maybe that was just my perception. It took about ten minutes, but when I headed out with a handful of dark chocolate in my hand it was finally getting light, and I could see that the Fenetre de Champorcher (2826m) was not too far away. I decided to make a purposeful effort to get to the top and avenge my weak showing from Col Losone yesterday afternoon. The sun had risen minutes before I reached the top, and the view to the east was bathed in sunlight: an alpine valley with a lake that was not too far away, and the silhouettes of mountains upon mountains in the distance in which we were now headed. To the west, down in the shade of the morning dawn, was the Rifugio Sogno, and further down was the valley which I must have ascended during the night. The mountain range in the far distance was probably where I had been yesterday evening at sunset, and Cogne was probably somewhere in the valley floor in between. I studied this view somewhat incredulously, like when a sleep walker is told what he has done while asleep last night. It looked completely different than the world I had envisioned and wandered in last night.
I started the descent in a good mood. There was the same sense of fall in the air as yesterday: it was crisp and cool, the light was sharp and pristine, and there was a wonderful calmness to this alpine landscape that reminded me of hikes from my childhood. Soon we came to a lake which featured some imposing stone buildings along its shore, and then the single track trail turned into a dirt road that just went on and on (there were a few other runners in my vicinity, but nobody seemed to prefer conversation over the calmness of the early morning).
There were layers upon layers of blue mountain ridges in the far distance of the valley and they drew me towards them. The race now seemed more doable, and there was a strong sense of satisfaction that derived from the beauty of the surroundings, and from the experience of being in tune with the landscape and moving forward.
Eventually we arrived at the Rifugio Dondena (2192m) where we were received with the usual hospitality by a couple of race officials and the rifugio host. I ordered an espresso, and when I asked to pay the inn keeper refused any money. Next came a hamlet with some farms, and after passing through some more pastures the trail started dropping more steeply through a forest with a river to the right deep down in a gorge. It was another one of these descents that went on and on, and by the time I got to the town of Champorcher (1450m) my feet were running pretty hot. At the aid station I checked for blisters, but everything looked fine. After the usual meal of cheese, meat, chocolate, oranges, and Coke I left, this time with Ignio, a young Dutch guy, who was complaining about pain in his Achilles tendons.
We still had about 17km to go to Donnas. According to the elevation profile it was all downhill, but as we followed the main valley, there were numerous and substantial climbs as we weaved in and out of side valleys or dodged cliffs by the main river. At least the scenery was beautiful. It was very different from the alpine landscape of the early morning: now we were running through extensive chestnut forests which were encroaching on groves dotted by abandoned stone buildings. Sometimes there were whole groups of structures which were missing roofs or where trees were growing in the houses, and it was interesting to imagine how these woods must have been teeming with life hundred years ago.
Ignio and I had some nice conversations and he told me a lot about different races in Europe. The further we descended the more southern or Italian-looking the towns that we passed through became. It was a remarkable difference from the valleys we had seen on Sunday and Monday, which were also tributaries to the main Aosta valley. A lot of houses and sometimes entire hamlets had for-sale signs posted. Time started dragging on and once Ignio decided to take a longer break at an aid station I decided to push on more resolutely. I finally wanted to get to Donnas!
After more up's and down's through chestnut forests a paved road finally lead us down to the cities of Hone and Bard where we crossed the Dora Baltea river, the main river of the Aosta valley. We were now a mere 300m above sea level and in a very different world from the Fenetre de Champorcher that we had passed this morning. I was definitely out of place in the city streets, next to the trucks, cars, and shops.
More significant in my mind was the fact that we were now leaving Alta Via 2 behind and starting with Alta Via 1. There was now a real chance that the Tor des Geants was manageable, and that in a sense, and without wanting to sound too cocky, we were now on the home stretch. What a difference from yesterday morning when my mid had gone into a state of shock upon realizing the enormity of this race. It goes to show that we are very adaptable to adversity, but I think there was also an important physical transformation in progress. The first day was manageable because my body was rested and ready. The second day was brutal because the body was in new and unfamiliar terrain. But by the third day the body began to resign itself and adapt to this new regime.
Of course it was easy to contemplate the possibility that Donnas was perhaps the mid-point of the race; the fact was that it was not, there were still many challenges ahead, and even getting to Donnas, the next town downriver, was once again taking longer than expected, as the paved roads dragged on.
I reached the life base of Donnas (300m) around 3pm. It was in a school and I went through the now familiar routine of having two big pasta meals, getting my gear in order, and checking in with Matilda, who was following my progress carefully online, and who could tell me in detail what lay ahead. In Donnas I also took a shower for the first time. Because it was broad daylight sleeping was out of the question. Instead I hoped to get to the Rifugio Coda sometime during the night and sleep there for a couple of hours. (That’s why even though Sector 3 looked easy, it was not; I still had 8 hours of running ahead of me)
At the life base I met the two Italians who I had run with between Rifugio Vittorio Sella and Cogne yesterday evening. They were about to leave, so I hurried up to join them. As I hustled up through the vineyards of Donnas to catch up with the two Italians, a farmer offered me a grappa, but I politely declined, and not because I was in a hurry.
At some point during the third day Tor des Geants had ceased being a race and had morphed into an experience or a state of mind. I started becoming comfortable with the concept that I could keep going without end, twenty-fours hours a day with brief pauses to rest. This was new territory in terms of distance but also in terms of my physical and mental limits. Possibly they were much further that I had previously realized, but I was cautious about exploring them to resolutely, similar to a child who learns how to ride a bike for the first time.
Sector 4 was going to take us up the valley of Gressoney St. Jean, but in a very roundabout way. We first had to climb a hill at the entrance of the valley in order to descend to the town of Perloz (663m), where there was an aid station. In the evening light we could see the mountains in the distance on the other side of the valley which we were going to climb in the coming night. Perloz looked like an interesting town to explore as a tourist, but we had to keep moving. We descended steeply through a chestnut forest to reach an arched stone bridge that crossed the river Lyss perched precariously on rock outcroppings. From the bridge we started our next climb to the Rifugio Coda. This would be one of the longest climbs of the race, and I would reach the rifugio by about midnight. At first we passed through several fields and hamlets where farmers were turning animals in for the night. The trail took us more or less straight up a ridge, passing several small villages on the way. Unfortunately it was getting darker, so we couldn’t really enjoy the view, but the two Italians and I were moving along at a good pace and enjoying our conversations in broken Italian. Eventually we had to get our headlamps out and after about another hour I was glad to hear the cowbells being rung at the Sassa aid station (1433m). The aid station volunteers posted a couple of look-outs on a terrace who rang the bells enthusiastically whenever lights appeared below. At Sassa I had my regular aid station meal and we changed into warmer clothes for the next night on the mountain.
The climb from Sassa to Rifugio Coda was somewhat of a blur and once again it took longer than I would have appreciated. Especially towards the end I started to get real tired and I wasn’t very surefooted anymore. Rifugio Coda (2224m) sits high up on a ridge and offers great views of the large industrial city Biella in the distance below. I knew that I needed to sleep, so while the two Italians continued I went inside. I was shown a small room with four bunk beds, which filled up with other runners in no time. I set the alarm on my mobile phone for 2am and fell into a fitful sleep that didn't feel like sleep at all, because my muscles and my mind were still very active, while my brain was expecting a break. When the alarm went off I jumped up in a panic that the next day was about to begin. I folded my blanket in a hurry and stumbled out of the room, still more asleep than awake. The hut was very warm and buzzing with activity, but once I got out into the cold night air I finally woke up.
For the next descent I tried to latch on to a larger group of Italians who seemed to be enjoying a very engaged conversation, but they were moving too fast for me and I quickly fell behind. I spent the next few hours on my own, following the yellow flags through the dark, star filled night. I lost my sense of orientation again, but after what felt like wandering randomly for a couple of hours I descended steeply to a place that looked like a mine site. I thought that I could make out heavy equipment and the sound of diesel generators. There was a house illuminated by spotlights nearby. Running in the dark alone for so long must have freaked me out a bit and I wondered if I had happened upon some illicit operation, but it was just the aid station of Lago Vargno (1670m). Because it was quite cold I thought it was best to keep moving and get away from this spooky place as soon as possible.
I resumed climbing in the dark, but eventually it started to get light. As dawn broke I got lost for a while, because there wasn’t enough ambient light to see the yellow flags yet, and because my headlamp wasn’t strong enough to illuminate the reflective tags. After wandering around for a while I recovered the trail. I could now make out where I had been last night by the light from some headlamps which were barely visible in the distance; we must have circled around Monte Mars, which towered over the other side of the valley. I was still alone and as I passed the pastures and farms which had been abandoned in anticipation of winter it felt again like I was intruding on property where I didn’t belong. Eventually I reached Col Marmontana (2348m), and with that I was finally able to shake the weird feelings of the night.
A quick descent brought me to the aid station by Lago Chiaro (2096m). It looked like a bus stop shelter had been placed next to a small stream by a helicopter. A couple of volunteers were huddled around a fire with their sleeping bags nearby, waiting for the sun to come up. On a nearby ledge was a small radio antenna with which they could call in the runners who passed by. These volunteers might have spent a couple of days here already, assisting runners in this remote corner of a remote valley. Like all the other volunteers they were friendly and helpful.
At the aid station I met Gerhard, an experienced German runner, and together we continued on our way. The trail descended briefly, but after about 20 minutes it took a sharp turn to the right and headed straight up the side of the valley to the pass Crenna deu Leui (2311m). It wasn't a very long climb, but it was very steep and rocky. The pass was a narrow notch in a ridge, and we spent a few moments taking pictures of the Matterhorn and Monte Rosa mountains to the north and Gressoney way down in the valley floor. The trail continued initially very steeply, then more moderately over rock slabs and grassy patches. It described a wide sweep of a high altitude basin and then descended to another fiberglass box aid station with a radio antenna, which had been placed in a very scenic location on a ridge. From here we dropped down steep into a valley for a few hundred meters, then exited it to the right to regain some elevation. Our next destination was the aid station in the village of Niel, and several times I came past hamlets which I would have liked to have been Niel, but unfortunately they weren't. Instead, the trail just went on and on, stringing me along: first at elevation, then down again steeply through a forest, and around a valley basin. My patience was wearing thin by the time I reached the real Niel (1555m), where the aid station was located in the courtyard of a restored house. I called Matilda to get an update on the sections ahead, ate my usual food, and headed out again. It was probably between noon and 1pm. Gerhard and I had become separated on the descent to Niel, but I saw him again after the aid station. He was laying beside the trail, stretched out comfortably and taking a nap. I asked him if everything was OK and he replied that he just needed some sleep.
For some reason I kind of lost it right after Niel. We had to climb about 800m to the Col di Lazoney (2364m), before descending to Gressoney St. Jean. It was hot, and the entire length of the trail to the pass was visible from below. Gressoney would also have been reachable by descending the valley and hanging a right, but we had to take the hard way. Perhaps I just felt sorry for myself, but this climb seemed utterly unnecessary. Yesterday afternoon in Donnas there had been a hint that the end of the race was drawing closer, but now it became clear just how far the end still was. There would be no free rides, and the race was still and would remain as relentlessly hard as it had been on the second day. This sobering realization morphed into latent anger which I used to power my way up the mountain. My mind latched on to a couple of random minor incidents from the past and I got all worked up about them, bouncing back and forth between them until I finally reached the pass. Negative energy is supposed to be corrosive and harmful, but when you are running on empty it is better than nothing, as long as you know how to turn it on and off!
I snapped right back into a good mood at the pass. Unlike other passes, this one didn't descend steeply on the other side, but turned into a large high altitude plain hemmed in by mountains. Far, far in the distance the Mont Blanc mountains were visible, announcing the end of the race, but they were so far away that the distance was meaningless. I would worry about the Mont Blanc tomorrow or the following day. Here and now I was running through extensive pastures, boggy and wet in places. Gradually the plain evolved into a gently downward sloping valley and began a long descent. There was a forlorn feeling to this valley. The pastures where sheep must have been grazing during the summer were now brown, the stables were abandoned, and there was rarely another runner in sight. At one point a shepherd and his dog walked over to the trail to watch and offer encouragement, but otherwise everything was quiet.
Eventually I reached the aid station at the farm of Ober Loo (2055m). (There were many German names in this area because it had been settled by German-speaking Walsers, immigrants from Swiss mountain valleys). The farm was a real experience. A few locals were sitting around an outdoor table in front of an assortment of local cheeses, dried meats, and homemade bread. It felt like I was interrupting a private party, but I sat down at the table and dug in. They had Parmesan cheese that was incredibly tasty. After a little rest I topped off my water at the fountain, grabbed as many pieces of Parmesan as I could, and continued my trip down the valley towards Gressoney St. Jean, which was still about 8km away.
It was now mid-afternoon and the valley still had a quiet, abandoned feeling. Nobody else was in sight, and somehow this stillness triggered a new wave of hallucinations. Bushes, branches, or tree trunks morphed into small people or animals that were clearly recognizable from about 10m to 20m away. These little creatures stood silently in the afternoon sun and I had the distinct feeling that they were waiting to be released from some spell. However, when I got closer and the perspective changed, the figures that had been so clearly identifiable as little girls, cats, or an old sailor mysteriously reverted back to their natural form.
The sensation was actually enjoyable and entertaining. My mind entered a world of fairies and other weird creatures and started to spin stories that were similar to dreams. It was a novel way to experience nature and I developed an intuitive understanding for the story tellers of the past, and in particular Lewis Caroll and the Cheshire Cat in "Alice in the Wonderland." I now understood how these fairy tales originated, because the authors must have gone through similar hallucinations to write them. I just wasn't sure how they had arrived at this state of mind.
Eventually the trail got steep and my full concentration was required again. I tried to run as hard as I could, but the trail just kept going on and on, and after a while my feet and shoes started getting hot, so I cut back a bit to make sure I didn't get blisters or sore spots. Still, after a while I felt like the stuffing was coming lose. (I should point out that I hardly ever felt pain or physical exhaustion during this race. Perhaps it was because I wasn't running as aggressively as in a shorter race. The body was able to pace itself to prevent injury and while it took care of itself in the background, all the excitement was in the mind).
Eventually I reached the paved road and followed a sidewalk to the town of Gressoney St. Jean (1329m and the 200km mark of the race) where the next life station was located. I felt pretty bushed, both physically and mentally, after what I had been through since Donnas.
For some strange reason the life station in Gressoney didn’t work out for me. The people were friendly, the logistics and the food good as usual. It’s just that I wanted to get out of there as soon as possible and be left alone. Maybe my social skills were atrophying after all this time on the trails?
In any case, I had a double portion of pasta, checked my drop bag for another wooden metal, and got ready for another night in the mountains. It was about 6pm and I wanted to run a couple more hours before night time. In fact, this is where I made the only serious misjudgment about this race.
The next destination was the small hamlet of Alpenzu, followed by another pass, Colle Pinter, and Rifugio Crest, where I planned to get some sleep. The climb to Alpenzu was very steep, but I figured that Colle Pinter wouldn't be too much further. For reasons that I still don't understand I had a very clear mental image that after the pass the trail would continue at the same elevation for a couple of kilometers, perhaps following the shores of a long lake, until it reached the Rifugio Crest.
I left the life station in an antisocial mood and wanted to be alone. After leaving the picturesque town of Gressoney St. Jean I followed the river for a few kilometers which descends from the Monte Rosa mountain range and then turned left for the steep climb to Alpenzu. (Monte Rosa has the highest mountains of Switzerland; I now saw them for the first time from the unusual southern perspective). The climb was exactly what I needed; the steeper the better, and soon I was in a good mood again. However, I was definitely on my own; there weren't any other runners in sight.
I briefly checked in for some Coke at the Alpenzu aid station (1780m); the village is perched on some cliffs and must be lovely to visit during the day. Now it was nearly dark and shortly after Alpenzu I had to mount my headlamp. I figured Colle Pinter couldn't be too far away, but soon I got very tired and started slowing down significantly. It even took me a long time to change into a long-sleeve sweater and long pants. Occasionally I would see lights of runners ahead of me, but they were too far away for me to draw any conclusions about the remaining distance to the pass. I tried to kick-start myself by eating glucose tablets, but they didn't seem to have any impact at all. My headlamp illuminated seven reflective tags ahead, so I decided that the pass must be seven lights away. I knew that my impaired mental state was putting me at risk, and that the fact that things were so different from how I had imagined them was a problem. But there wasn't much I could do about it.
Eventually I reached Colle Pinter (2776m). It was dark, cold, and windy, and rather than being an easy pass, Pinter had turned out to be as challenging as any other pass I had seen. In a surreal surprise a group of people with a dog emerged from the dark. They were spectators, and as they passed me they cheered me on and told me repeatedly how incredible my effort was. All I could think of was "you have no idea in what kind of trouble I am."
The back side of Colle Pinter was far from flat. Instead, the descent was steep, and because it was rocky it was hard to tell where the trail was. I could conclude that it wasn't a clean-cut valley, but somehow bifurcated with various gulleys, rock bands, and small streams. Once I realized that this situation would require my full concentration I was wide awake again. I could easily get lost here and be unable to regain the trail, or worse, descend down into some cliffs from which I couldn't climb back up. I got a second, powerful handheld flashlight from my backpack and tried to draw on all the mountaineering and way-finding skills I had developed in my youth: you somehow develop a sixth sense about how a trail should fit into the terrain, like fitting a puzzle piece into a puzzle. I was making assumptions about what was a trail as opposed to erosion forms or animal paths. Occasionally I would find yellow trail markers, but it seemed like a lot of yellow flags were missing. After a rather tense 30 minutes I finally got to the bottom of the rocky section and onto an area where the valley and the trail were more clearly discernible.
Now the only problem was that there was still no sight of the Rifugio Crest. The yellow flags confirmed that I was on the right trail, but somehow it felt very strange that I hadn't reached the aid station yet. What could be wrong? I saw no runners ahead of me, and behind there were occasionally a couple of lights, but they looked like fireflies and floated in a very unnatural way. Probably runners, but certainly nothing to rely upon. Eventually I reached a hamlet. Why was there a hamlet here but no Rifugio? There was light in one house and I heard a dog barking somewhere, but did people really live here? Should I knock on a door, even though it was late at night, and ask where I was? I saw a bench in front of a house and decided to take a break until I could figure out what to do. I ate some dark chocolate, changed the batteries on my headlamp, and fiddled with my equipment in the hope that some other runners would come by soon.
Sure enough, within minutes a group of runners rounded the corner. It was Gilles and a few of his French-speaking colleagues and they were engaged in lively conversation. I was glad to see them and have a human reference point to know that this was still the Tor des Geants race, and that I was not alone, lost somewhere in the night. I tagged along, picked up the pace, and soon we arrived at the Rifugio Crest (1952m), which was indeed located in a hamlet with several other houses. The rifugio was more like a guest house. It had a dining area on the third floor and dorm rooms below and in a couple of adjacent buildings. After the usual diet of cheese, meat, and chocolate the inn keeper showed us some empty beds. Gilles, his group, and I agreed that we would continue together, but there was a misunderstanding if we would sleep until 2am or sleep for two hours. When I got up after two hours they weren't around and I wasn't sure if they had left already or were still in bed (we had slept in different quarters). After a breakfast of cheese, meat, chocolate, and cookies I looked around for somebody I could run with. Gerhard, the German guy I met yesterday morning, had just arrived, and he introduced me to Jacek, a Polish guy, who was ready to leave. We headed out together, I'm guessing around 2:30am. Jacek was a cool guy. His accented German was deliberate and understated, but his voice and demeanor exuded authority and experience. I learned that Jacek lived in Germany, was a veteran runner, serviced freight lifts for a living, and had two children in college. We ran at a pretty fast pace on a dirt road that followed the same elevation more or less continuously for a couple of hours.
Eventually the trail descended steeply towards Saint Jacques, a town in the valley where the next aid station was. It was now about 6am and like the previous mornings I was hit again by a sudden tiredness that I was unable to fight. The trail was very technical (rocks and roots) and steep, which caused me to concentrate enough so I couldn't fall asleep, but I got very slow.
We reached the aid station, the ground floor in a house in the center of Saint Jacques (1697m), at dawn. It was a pretty somber affair, some runners were sitting asleep on benches, and in general everybody looked like they'd be rather somewhere else. I knew I had to get rid of the tiredness, so I tried a cup of black coffee in addition to the cheese, meat, and chocolate (disgusting, the first time in my life I drunk black coffee).
The cold air didn't help much as Jacek and I headed out again. Even though it was getting light, I was still spaced out and craving sleep. I really wanted to keep up with Jacek, who was powering up the next climb, but I kept dozing off. Again I tried to jump-start myself with glucose tablets, but they were useless. I kept falling asleep as I hustled along about 20m behind Jacek in the hope that the sun would finally come up and give me a boost, but it was too early for that. Next I tried a bag of m&m's, and I ate them by the handful. They worked like magic and within a few minutes I felt better and was able to catch up to Jacek.
We reached the Rifugio Grand Tournalin (2535m) just as the sun reached us and started warming up the air. This helped move my mind from the sugar- and caffeine-supported emergency mode to a self-sustaining mode, just like when a piece of equipment reverts from emergency power to normal power. The rifugio was large and inviting, and we sat down at a table for the usual helping of cheese, dried meat, chocolate, and cookies. Jacek met Hubert sitting at a table, an Austrian guy who joined us for the remaining climb up to the Colle di Nannaz (2772m). It was a relatively brief ascent through a few rock bands, but the views from the pass were wonderful: Lysskam, Monte Rosa all bathed in sunlight under a blue sky, and a bit lower to the left in the shade Colle Pinter, the site of last night's tense moments which were now firmly in the past.
There was now a relaxed feeling in the air and for the next couple of hours I felt more like a tourist than a runner who's been on the go for over 90 hours. The weather was gorgeous, the scenery looked like in a brochure, and the trail was pretty easy. This was the morning of Day 5, and there was no denying the fact that we were closing in on Courmayeur, regardless of what lay ahead. From the nearby Col des Fontaines (2695m) we were able to see across the Aosta valley to the mountains in the south where we had been running a few days ago, and that view was more hard evidence of how much progress we had made. Ahead of us down in the Valtournanche valley we could see the town by the same name where the next life base was located, and beyond that the next climb to the Lago di Cignana and the Fenetre du Tsan, a pass we would tackle this afternoon. Over to the right was the Matterhorn. We snapped pictures for a couple of minutes, soaked in the glorious atmosphere, and then started running down to Valtournanche (1515m). Jacek took off and Hubert held back due to blisters, but around noon we arrived in town.
After the hardships of the past couple of days I resolved to spend a bit more time in Valtournenche (i.e., sleep at the life base for a couple of hours) and make sure I was somewhat rested and ready for whatever surprises the next night held in store. I had a couple of plates of pasta, took a shower, changed my clothes, and went to sleep in the auditorium of the school where this life base was located. I slept great; this was the first time in this race that I had a restful sleep. 1.5 or 2 hours later Jacek woke me up and I felt quite rejuvenated.
Not only did I feel fresh, but I also met a whole new set of faces. Here is an interesting aspect of this race: I always seemed to run with the same group of about twenty people: Gilles and his French colleagues, Gerhard and Helmut the Germans, the two cheery Italians, Jacek and Hubert, a couple of Portuguese speaking guys, and so on. Of course there were plenty of runners ahead of us and behind us, but from my perspective this was a race with about twenty people. We would see each other at aid stations, sometimes run together and share stories, then drift apart or leapfrog each other while somebody was sleeping, but the same faces kept popping up with remarkable consistency. With the same consistency I was always in about 140th position and about 7 or 8 hours ahead of the cut-offs. Now that I had slept during the day and out-of-turn, so to speak, I met a bunch of strangers: this was the group of runners that was following behind us. I spoke with Craig Slagel and with Angela. She was a Canadian runner who I had thought was ahead of me, possibly in Beat Jegerlehner's group. But it was time to get going in a hurry; my group was already underway.
Because I was feeling good I made a detour into a hotel and treated myself to a double espresso. I hoped that it would clear the fog from sleeping and jump-start the my mind for the next climb, but it did no such thing. Nonetheless, the climb to the Lago Cignana reservoir and the adjacent Rifugio Barmasse was uneventful. Jacek was in a rush and I knew were losing him for good, but I caught up with Hubert and we ran together on and off past the lake and into the evening. After the Rifugio Barmasse there was a section of road that was completely level for about 100m. I mention this just because it was the only flat section in the entire race that I can recall. After Valtournanche the sky became increasingly overcast and now it looked like it might even rain. I got to the next aid station, Alpeggio Grand Raye (2352m) around 7pm and that's where Hubert caught up with me again. We would run together until the next morning.
It soon got dark and we had to turn on our headlamps and dress for the night. I have no specific recollection of the next pass, Fenetre du Tsan (2738m) and in fact, the entire night is a bit of a blur. Based on the elevation profile we had assumed that there wouldn't be a lot of elevation change, but once again we had been too trusting. Sure, all the passes and the rifugios were at roughly the same elevation, but in between there were lots of unadvertised hard climbs and descents. (I rarely bothered to study the map in much detail. This race was so enormous that I found it impossible to process all the details of the course. It was easier to have a general understanding and just run from yellow flag to yellow flag).
It was a bit like a roller coaster ride: comparatively brief ups and downs (there were four passes in a time frame of about seven hours), subject to an element of surprise, because we were in the clouds and it was really difficult to tell which way we were going. Apart from the usual steep climbs to and the descents from the passes the trail seemed to follow some very steep slopes along valleys. It was hard to tell what was going on, but at the perimeter of the light shed by my headlamp I could often only see a vertical drop off. The trail was so narrow in places that it would have been nearly impossible to pass another runner. Falling asleep and taking a wrong step would have had serious consequences. Hubert and I took our time on this section because it seemed rather dangerous and required complete attention and surefootedness. This trail continued in this manner for a few hours and after a while it became nerve-wracking, because we always had to be on guard.
Anther more lyrical way to describe this section was that we were like boats at sea. It was dark and foggy and we really didn’t have a clue where we were relative to our surroundings or the night sky. Every so often the light of a rifugio or a bivaco would emerge from the dark, like a lighthouse perched on a rock. These small and remote rifugios or bivacos really deserved their names: they were small, cozy, warm, and welcoming; everything that the night outside was not. It was often cramped inside, there was activity in the kitchen, there were runners sleeping at the tables while others were coming and going, and volunteers were signing us in and out at the entrance.
Most of the time-keeping was done with radios and pencil and paper. The volunteers called in to a base when we arrived and again when we left. As I mentioned earlier, there were 49 aid stations, so after a while we developed a certain familiarity with the system. The ether was filled with aid stations calling information into the base: runner number 128 just arrived at station 34. Runner 66 was leaving station 42. Runner 156 was leaving station 38. The longer the race went on the more meaningful these radio communications became to me. It was evidence of a network in which runners were calling in from all remote corners of the Aosta valley in the middle of the night. Wherever we were at this moment, however we felt, we shared a common experience. For me it was also a lifeline to the outside world: no matter how disconnected I was from civilization at this moment of the night, I was still on my way to the finish line, and Matilda and the kids would know soon that I was making progress and therefore I was OK. I imagine this is how kidnap victims feel: a sign of life means there is hope. The longer the race went on the more I loved hearing, for instance: “45 a base?” … “Avanti, 45!” … “73 in partenza di 45!” Sometimes I felt like asking the volunteer to repeat the message. That’s right, 73 was doing OK; he was on his way to 46, 47, 48, and 49 and he would make it!!!
And so the night went on. From the Fenetre du Tsan we reached Bivacco Reboulaz (2585m), continued to Col Terray (2775m), ate and drank at Rifugio Cuney (2652m), climbed Col Chaleby (2653m), and passed Bivaco Rosaire Clermont (2700m). We were like the pilots of the mail planes in Saint Exupery’s book “Night Flight.” At about 3am we reached Col de Vessonaz (2793m), from where the trail descended a steep scree field and we finally left this section behind. It was a long descent, and after about an hour the trail became wider and less steep as we reached Alpeggio Arp Vieille and then entered a forest. I had started getting really tired again, and almost immediately the forest came alive with fairies, people, and animals. The hard light of the headlamp gave the branches and leaves very detailed contours and created filigreed visions.
It didn’t take too long and my mind became even too tired to create hallucinations. I started dreaming as I was walking or running and kept getting slower and slower. I really couldn’t wait for Close, the next town with an aid station, to show up. I tried to make some perfunctory conversation with Hubert so I wouldn’t lose him, but all I could think of was "why doesn’t Close finally show up???"
We both agreed that we would get some sleep in Close (1495m), but when we finally reached the aid station around pre-dawn and had some food (cheese, meat, and chocolate), we were told that all the cots in the aid station were already occupied, but that we were welcome to sleep on the ground. The aid station was a tent in a parking lot and the ground was covered with a tarp. I thought the offer sounded great, but Hubert thought otherwise and decided to continue. I laid a T-shirt on the floor as padding for my hips and was given a space blanket to keep warm. As I pulled the reflective foil over me it turned into a balloon that enveloped me and pulled me up to the sky. For a very brief moment I wondered if I was being anesthetized: I was falling asleep so quickly and irresistibly like I had never done before.
An hour or so later I was woken up. I was still a bit groggy but I felt reasonably fresh. It was about 7am now and I grabbed my stuff and wandered over to the aid station for another portion of cheese, meat, chocolate, and Coke. To my surprise Gilles was sitting at a table with his francophone buddies. Was this really a coincidence? In a way Tor des Geants resembled a drama in six acts: another act or day was about to begin, as a set of familiar actors took the stage. We agreed to leave together for our ascent to Col Brison.
After the roller coaster ride of last night the race reverted to its traditional format of long ascents to a pass, followed by equally long descents. The weather was still overcast, and it took us a while to wake up as Gilles and I climbed through a forest to reach the aid station at Brison L'Arp (2195m). It was another yellow fiberglass box which had been placed by helicopter next to some abandoned stone structures. From here it was about half an hour to Col Brison (2488m). Straight down in front of me I saw Ollomont, the next life base, and behind me the mountain range we had roamed last night; it was still mostly a mystery where exactly we had been. Gilles explained what to expect next: after a steep descent of 1100m to Ollomont we would climb right back up the other side of the valley to reach the Rifugio Champillion and Col Champillion, which was on the other horizon, higher than where we currently stood. This time the news had lost the ability to shock. I had come far enough already, and within the next 20 hours or so I would be back in Courmayeur, three valleys and two passes to the west of us. 20 hours seems like a long time in most other races, but now it was almost a victory lap, a distance that, if we got very lucky, might even be doable by midnight.
From Col Brison we descended steeply down to Alpeggio Berrio Damon (1932m). This aid station was manned by three older farmers and their dog. I had to chuckle when I saw the sight: the men had set up a table and benches in front of their barn and they were serving drinks in the glasses from their kitchen. They were definitely not runners, but they were very understanding hosts and we sat with then for a bit and shot the breeze.
It took a while until we finally reached Ollomont (1385m). My legs were starting to feel bushed from all this pounding, but I wasn't in a mood to complain. The sun was coming out again, and even though Ollomont is a very small town, the life base was busy with volunteers and visiting family members of runners. It was about noon. Gilles and I had a couple of portions of pasta, along with any other food that looked appetizing. This time I mixed a can of tuna into my pasta sauce and it tasted incredibly delicious.
I left the aid station with Gilles and his francophone express. Everybody was bantering and in a good mood. Gilles is a great climber and wanted to see how fast he could make it up to Col Champillon. I was also curious to see what I was still capable of, but didn't want to do anything stupid this close before the finish. Gilles and I both took off and by the time I reached Rifugio Champillon (2375m) he had opened about a lead of about five minutes on me. I arrived just as Gilles was leaving, and just before a helicopter arrived to pick up a cameraman. He was filming me and asking me some questions. I meant to tell the cameraman that we were headed to Courmayeur, but for the life of me I couldn't remember where we were going. I just stood there searching for words until I recalled that I was wearing a bracelet with the name of the race and our destination. Even though I was capable of a fine burst of energy, I must have resembled those people who turn up with no recollection of who they are or what they are doing.
After a couple of glasses of Coke I left for the Col Champillon (2709m) and reached it in short order. I was feeling pretty good: this was the last pass of Tor des Geants that I would see in daylight; 23 passes down and one more to go, and I was still able to climb at about 500 meters per hour. Behind me was Col Brison and the mountains of last night, ahead somewhere was Col Malatra, but it was unclear to me how I would get there.
The descent brought me back to reality. It followed a slope for what seemed like a very long time without any turns at all. The trail was technical and the weather had turned warm again, so after a while my feet started to overheat. Eventually I did reach Alpeggio Ponteilles Damon (2046m) at the back of the valley. It was a large stone farm and the aid station was in a smaller adjacent building. Gilles was already sitting at the table enjoying the food: there were about four different cheeses to sample, a variety of dried meet specialties, and some home made bread. The intensity of the past days had clearly subsided and we knew that a couple minutes more or less at the aid station wouldn't matter. Also, the food, the hospitality, and the location were almost too good to be true, and I knew intuitively that I ought to savor these easier moments of the race before it was too late. So we sat there in the afternoon sun for about five minutes, sampled the cheese, and chatted with the volunteers. Unfortunately, the shadows were getting longer already, and we still had a long way to go before dark.
The next section was not very difficult. We had to round a mountain to reach Saint Rhemy, a town in the next valley, which we reached by following a dirt road through a forest. Gilles and I were mostly in eye sight of each other. There were some spectacular, lentil-shaped clouds in the afternoon sky: some of the clouds were stacked four high over each other with a clear separation between the layers. At one point Gilles and I sat down by the side of the trail to admire this sight. It was a special moment that we felt we had earned, because within hours this race, this combination of adventure and hardship shared with others, this sense of freedom and single-mindedness would be all over, just like the clouds in the sky.
At one point, it was about 4pm or 5pm, as I was lost in thoughts, as I started to notice a remarkable stillness in my surroundings. The trees were standing patiently in this late summer sunlight, awaiting the arrival of the first snow which was probably just a few weeks away. The change of seasons was in the air. In this stillness the trees started to come alive and I sensed how they were quietly observing me. In a smooth transition from silence the forest became alive, and the hallucinations came out in full force and populated the forest with figures of humans and creatures. I had entered my world of dreams and fairies again. This time they were so rich that I tried to spin my own fairy tale with the hapless figures I saw. I believe it involved two orphan girls who were condemned to live in the forest and play with wild animals, but both they and the animals were mute and unable to escape the forest.
Gilles and I reached the next aid station just before dusk. It was located at the entrance of Saint Remy (1621m), a town on the St. Bernard pass road which connects Italy with Switzerland. We changed into warm clothes for the night, washed down the cheese, meat, and chocolate with some Coke, and headed out again. There was a definite sense of anticipation and excitement in the air: we had only one more pass to go, and sometime in the night or early morning we would be back in Courmayeur, something which only a few days ago had seemed hard to imagine, almost like a fantasy. Now Courmayeur was in reach, but we were also knew that it would be dangerous to take anything for granted. Another cold night and high pass awaited us, and the need to sleep could overcome us at anytime. Gilles and I agreed to take a nap at the aid station below the Col Malatra as a precaution.
We left Saint Rhemy with a group of about six incredibly fresh Italians who charged up the mountain and were hard to hang on to. We did succeed, and about two hours later we arrived at Alpeggio Lac Merdeux (2540m). This was a large farm and I could hear that the barn was filled with sleeping cows as we walked over to the farm house. We found the kitchen where several runners were already sleeping on the tables and benches. Gilles occupied a bench, while I laid down on the kitchen floor in front of the stove. The floor was very cold, but somebody had been drying a pair of boots in the stove so it still gave off some heat. I threw a shirt under my hips and dozed off for about an hour and a half. It was hard to get any real sleep because of the constant coming and going and because of the anticipation of finally finishing this race.
Back outdoors at the aid station we signed out and listened as our departure was announced over the radio to Courmayeur: “47 a base?” … “Avanti, 47!” … “73 in partenza di 47!” I think I can imagine how Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin felt when they left the moon to return to earth. Only one more pass and a long descent stood between us and the end of Tor des Geants! I was energized, excited, and ready for the race to be done. Col Malatra (2925m) wasn't too far away, but like Colle de la Crosatie, the first pass I had crossed in the dark, it would have been nice to see this pass in daylight. The darkness masked some interesting features: the trail was very steep and we had to use cables and steel ladders just below the pass.
The pass gave way to a wide open valley and the runable trail descended for quite a while though a scree field. We were running under a clear night sky with stars and some moon light, although later it became overcast. Eventually we reached meadows and pastures. At one point Gilles started struggling and even fell over. He was fighting the sleep, so we took a break and he ate an energy bar and dressed more warmly.
Like so often in the past few days, it took longer than expected for us to reach Rifugio Bonatti. It's not that we had miscalculated or underestimated the distance, it's just that hope and tiredness kept losing out to reality.
We reached Rifugio Bonatti (2025m) around 2:30am or 3:00am. It is a very big Rifugio and it looked a bit like a restaurant. Bonatti resembled an Edward Hopper scene, because the dining area was brightly lit but only two or three other people were around, and they all seemed like they'd rather be in bed. Also, the aluminum platters of cheese, meat, and chocolate looked out of place in this restaurant setting. Gilles wanted to take a break and sleep for a few hours, but in a repeat of the strange coincidence from yesterday morning when I found Gilles sitting at a table at the aid station in Close, this time it was Hubert the Austrian, who was sitting at a table. Hubert and I would wrap this race up together. Before we left I inquired with the rifugio host about a good family friend and his wife, who were staying at Rif. Bertone. Hermi is a friend of my parents and had been very influential in getting me interested in the mountains when I was a kid. He's now in his 80's and knows the Aosta area very well. Before the race he cautioned me that it was impossible to finish this race, but he had taken a very close interest in the race, and I had called him a couple of times in the past days to let him know where I was. I just expected to leave a message for Hermi, but the inn keeper asked me to hold on for a moment while she went to get Hermi and Ruth. We took some photos and for me it was another meaningful moment of closure as this race was drawing to an end.
At this point there were only about three hours left to Tor des Geants. We would follow the trail more or less level to Rifugio Bertone and then drop down to Courmayeur. It should have been uneventful night running and I hoped we could maybe do it in two hours, because then I stood a chance of making it to a wedding of a good friend in my home town that started at 10am. It's about a 4 hour drive, and I had asked my father a couple of days ago if he could come and pick me up in Courmayeur, so we could drive to the wedding immediately after the race.
As it turned out I wasn't setting any speed records, and halfway to Bertone I started to get really tired. At first it became difficult to carry on a conversation with Hubert, then I started to fall asleep while running, and finally there was nothing I could do about it. I started to look out for places to lie down, but I couldn't find anything suitable. Finally I asked Hubert if he wouldn't mind just waiting for 5 minutes while I took a nap. I removed my pack and poles, stepped off the trail, and lied down to sleep right there. Five minutes later I felt much better and we finally got to Rifugio Bertone (1989m) just before dawn. In the valley below was Courmayeur, and it was so close we could almost touch it (at least by the standards we had acquired over the past week). Only an hour separated us from the finish line. Given my recent brush with fatigue and realizing that I was too late for the wedding now, I decided to lie down again, so I wouldn't have to sleep in the open if I became tired again. But the desire to wrap this race up was too great. After about two minutes I jumped up again, grabbed some chocolate for the road, and we left.
It was actually far from a road. The trail was initially steep and rocky but with the arrival of daylight things improved. It was during this final descent that Hubert pointed out one of the key memories for me from this race: "Did you notice how although everybody was incredibly tired and physically and mentally exhausted, nobody was ever unfriendly or irritable? In normal life some people don't hesitate to vent their frustration if they have to wait in lines, if the service is not up to their standards, or if something deviates from their expected routine." It was true; during the extreme situations we had experienced over the past six days, everybody had always been civil and positive. What was this state at the edge of our human limits where we felt no physical pain and no negative emotions?
The remaining kilometers of the race were uneventful. The morning was grey and anticlimactic; the magic and the electricity of the past days were gone. The mental and physical demands had created a completely absorbing environment in which our only purpose was to run up and down mountains and make sure that our body was able to keep up, but they were losing their power. The single-minded focus of the past days had also been extremely liberating and exhilarating; I had felt very free without fully realizing it. Instead of the tension and the concentration there was now a deep sense of gratitude and relief. Gratitude that things had worked out. Gratitude that it had been a wonderful experience all around; the volunteers, the runners, the atmosphere, the landscape. Gratitude that I had been able to accomplish something that I had doubted a week ago. Gratitude that it was done and I could go home to my family.
Hubert's wife joined us at the entrance to Courmayeur (1224m) and together we ran through the still deserted streets to the finish line. It was Saturday morning, a bit after 7am. 141 hours after the start last Sunday morning Courmayeur felt like a different town, and perhaps I was a different person too. Tor des Geants was done.