Pictures for my race are here
The months leading up to Tor des Geants weren’t pretty. In hindsight it is pretty clear what was going on, but back then the writing on the wall wasn’t too legible. It began at the starting line of the 100km race in Biel, when I had a hard time beating the pain in my left heel and foot into submission with Ibuprofen. I knew I had real problems by late June when I ran an Orienteering race with pain in both heels and couldn’t shake the pain in the following weeks.
What followed was Achilles tendon rehab with a physical therapist, a vacation in Corsica where I would stretch my calves on every step I could find. No matter what, after 90 minutes of running, the pain would return. I was registered for several races in July and August. For weeks the gear lay ready in my room, but in bouts of common sense I always managed to cancel and rest my tendons. In the end I resigned myself to toeing the line at TdG wholly unprepared but well stretched and rested. Nonetheless, I felt rather confident that I could pull it off with a prudent approach.
Why did I want to run TdG a second time after 2010? The first run had been a life-changing event that had made every race since then pale in comparison. I wanted to break out of that pattern, but I also wanted to experience the thrill again and see if I could get a different handle on the experience. Finally, I wanted to see if I could see the sections in daylight which I had missed during the night by running about 6 hours faster (or slower). And to some degree I just wanted to see if I could do it again, even though I was acutely aware of the danger of tampering with the great experience of 2010.
The only notable fact about the trip to Courmayeur was the 3.5 hour layover in Chamonix due to poor connections. This gave me the opportunity to relive my “last supper” at McDonalds from 2010.
At the pre-race dinner I ran into Jaeduk Sim, an elite South-Korean runner who I had met at Western States in 2007 and given a ride to and from the race. Even though he doesn’t speak English we had a nice chat. I was staying at the same hotel I did last time, and the hosts seemed happy to have me back and made me feel special. Luckily I was able to store my luggage with them for the week.
The weather forecast for Sunday called for showers to end in the early morning hours, but unfortunately that’s not how it worked out. It kept raining and raining, and just before the start I had to duck into a shop and buy a somewhat dorky looking hat – I had forgotten mine at home and all the running caps were sold out. The start of the race was most definitely anticlimactic. For some reason it was delayed by about 20 minutes while I stood around with Beat Jegerlehner and all the other runners in a downpour.
During the climb to Col Arp the weather finally improved and we were able to put away the rain gear and settle into our pace. At this point the field is still very compact; a long line of runners who were eager to exchange stories from past races while finding the right speed trajectory for the coming hours and days. It is always interesting to see how early the patterns are set for the rest of the race. The runners in my photos from the first four hours are often the same that I share the trails with in the coming days and nights.
I was wearing special socks with padding intended to gently massage the Achilles tendons, but since they were causing irritation rather than relief I took them off at Col Arp. On the trail down to La Thuile I finally settled into the rhythm of the race: all the concerns of the last months were gone, and what lay ahead was a week of adventure, hardship, and opportunities. What a great way to spend a week!
I arrived in La Thuile after a long descent in the early afternoon hours. At this point in the race there were plenty of spectators to encourage the runners. Their enthusiasm now matched ours, but I knew well that in the coming days we would be passing through deserted towns at odd hours of the day; tired and perhaps greeted by the odd family member or two of another runner.
On the climb to Rif. Deffeyes thunderstorms started rolling in again and soon we were climbing in rain and hail, but hikers returning from the hut kept encouraging us. The aid station at Deffeyes was crowded; an obvious sign of how much more popular this race has become since the first running in 2013. I decided to change into my full rain gear with pants, jacket, and mittens, but shortly after I set off on my climb to Passo Alto the rain stopped again.
The next pass, Passo Alto, felt like a homecoming. I was grateful that the weather had cleared up a bit and the view of the cloud-shrouded valleys provided some reward. The descent to the Promoud aid station was muddy but uneventful. What a difference from three years ago when the local farmer or shepherd was offering cheese and homemade bread on a table in front of the barn; today the aid station was crowded with wet runners huddled around tables of the usual aid station fare.
I didn’t spend much time at Promoud, because my goal was to see Col de la Crosatie in daylight. On photos it looked impressive, but in 2010 I had reached the pass after dark. This time I made it to the top in driving rain and waning daylight. I hadn’t realized previously how steep and exposed the stone steps to the top really are.
It was still raining hard on the descent, now in darkness. My plan was to use the long descent to recover and eat enough food to fuel my stove until Planaval, but the trail was slippery and steep and required my full attention (I would learn two days later that a runner from China fell to his death on this section at roughly the time I passed the area). It took a couple of hours to reach the skimpy aid station at the valley floor in Planaval. Before I got there I knew that I was in trouble, because I was hungry, cold, and out of energy. I took the necessary time to get dressed warmly and eat some food before heading off on the very runnable section to Valgrisenche, where I arrived around midnight. This year the bustling aid station was out on the street in a big tent and impressively well organized.
I was handed my drop bag, sat down at a table, and got served by what amounted to my personal waitress. I didn’t want to sleep in Valgrisenche, because knew I would be too worked up at this phase of the race to fall asleep in a reasonable amount of time. Instead, I laid down on a cot in the brightly lit and noisy sleeping tent and rested for about 45 minutes, before organizing my gear and heading back out into the rain.
Like in 2010 the sky cleared up and gave way to a starry night as I climbed up to the Rif. Epee. I arrived there around 4:00, ate and drank a bit, and set off for Col de Fenetre without much delay. Before reaching the Col I could hear but not see a large rock fall, but luckily the sound came from the other side of the valley. So far the race was unfolding in a remarkably similar fashion as in 2010, and my heels weren’t giving me too much grief.
The descent to Rhemes was again incredibly steep in the top section and accordingly I handled it with the necessary care. After the first couple hundred meters of really steep descent the trail gave way to a plain steep and endless descent, and as daylight approached I reached the small town of Rhemes. At this point I was about an hour ahead of my pace in 2010, but somehow the wheels came off a bit at the aid station. I felt rather beat after the long descent and took a longer break than expected to make sure everything was ok. I hit the bathroom a couple of times, ate some more, and left the aid station feeling rather guilty that I had given up more time than necessary.
I knew that I had a long day ahead, but luckily the weather was nice. I wasn’t moving as fast as I hoped on the long and uneventful climb to Col Entrelor, but I knew that I needed to pace myself due to my lack of training and my left heel. It felt OK, as long as I didn’t push it. I resigned myself to the fact that I wasn’t going to set any records, and spent some time in the company of a group of lively Italians.
I got to the top of Entrelor around 9:10. This year I knew how long the distances were; they didn’t seem endless like the first time, but now I was concerned that I wasn’t moving fast enough. Also, for some reason there were fewer runners to chat with this time, and I wished I had more company.
The downhill was rather slow; I arrived in Eaux Rousses around mid-day, ate, and started the climb to Col Loson ready: this is one of the longest climbs of the race, and I was determined to pace myself and eat enough, so I wouldn’t blow up in the final couple of hours like I did last time. I made a point of sitting down at regular intervals (every 90 minutes or so) and eating a Snickers bar. This strategy cost me a couple of minutes, but it paid off, because I was able to power up the final scree fields were others seemed to be running out of steam. Nonetheless, that last section was nasty. I was glad when I reached the Col, took a quick look west to acknowledge Col Entrelor where I was this morning and a look east to the Fenetre Champrocher, where I would hopefully be next morning.
In between was Cogne, and chances were good that I could get there on time by 8 or 9 pm. The descent to the Rif. Vittorio Sella wasn’t bad, but my thighs were definitely sore; more evidence from a day of relentless climbing and descending that I was out of shape.
Rifugio Vittorio Sella was warm and inviting, other guests were enjoying dinner, and it was too easy to get comfortable. I ate a bit of everything on offer and made a point of heading out into the chilly evening air quickly. On the descent to Cogne I spent some time chatting with a young couple from Trentino, who I would see on and off again in the following days.
I also called home and asked Matilda to do the Reverse Sevens test with me. Before the race I was interested in devising a test to see how my cognitive tests decline during the race. I knew from previous events that in the later stages of a race I find it increasingly difficult to solve simple math problems. In doing some online research I found the Reverse Sevens test, in which one measures how quickly test subjects are able to subtract seven, starting from 100 (i.e., 93, 88, 79, etc.). Matilda measured my performance in a first test before the race started, and the plan was to benchmark against that time at various stages of the race. This evening I performed better than in the initial test, and my mental state seemed to be pretty decent, considering I hadn’t slept for over 36 hours.
I hit the outskirts of Cogne just as it was getting dark. I was running on a paved road with some other people when I started seeing the most amazing hallucinations. Through the trees elaborate sweeping arches and bridges appeared in the near and further distance. I was certain these structures were real, because unlike other hallucinations these lasted for a long time and remained coherent even as I moved relative to them and other structures. There was a bridge that spanned the entire valley in the distance. Nearby, there was a parking structure or a theatre structure made of delicate steel members. In Cogne, large modern structures appeared behind the old buildings. Yet still, these arches and bridges remained elusive and intangible as I got closer to them. These incredibly vivid hallucinations lasted for ten or fifteen minutes and while I kept my mouth shut I was tempted to point these spectacular structures to my fellow runners. “You wouldn’t believe what I’m seeing right now!”
I arrived in Cogne a bit after 9pm, still a bit taken aback from my hallucinations. The life base was very busy, but as usual well organized. I had generous helpings of pasta, tuna, and yogurt for dinner. The nice thing about this race is that you can eat as much as you feel like of everything and it all tastes excellent.
I took a quick shower and planned to sleep from 10:30 pm until 1:00am. Unfortunately my cot was squeaky and I started having annoying dreams about an employee of mine, so after midnight I decided it was time to leave early. I had another big dinner for breakfast, got my pack ready, and left in good spirits around 1:00am. At first I was alone, but as the trail started climbing a French-speaking woman caught up to me who turned out to be from Vevey in Switzerland. We made some small talk and I was pleased to hear that she thought I was bilingual.
Like in 2010 this section was very cold, and I started to realize or rather remember how much hardship this race entails. There are just so many hours of running in the dark, so much endless climbing and descending, but all this suffering is neutralized by the adventure and the good memories. The thrill of the first two days was now wearing off and reality started to set in. This was going to be a long grind and much more work than my rosy memories had led me to believe.
I got to Rifugio Sogne at 5:00 am and suffered a minor crisis. I was low on energy and somewhat confused, so I put my head down on the table where I was eating and took a quick nap. I hit the bathroom but left in time to make it to the nearby pass, the Fenetre de Champrocher, just before day break. I was now about an hour of my previous schedule.
My hope of expanding this lead was quickly dashed, because my heels started hurting when running downhill, and I ended up walking down this very runnable long section in the glorious morning light. I was disappointed to see my time savings vanish, but I knew that I had to be smart and play a long game if I wanted any chance of making it back to Courmayeur. The main towns en route, Gressoney and Valtournenche, were still days away.
After the xyz aid station I took some time to sit down and change my clothes and hang the wet ones on my backpack to dry. The following long descent to the town of Champrocher went well enough that I resolved to make a push on the following two low-laying sections to Donnas in an effort to make up the two hours I had lost on my projected schedule. These two sections, each a couple of hours long, look easy, but they first involve some very technical rocky trails followed by a series of rolling nasty little climbs along the xx river. It was slow going in the technical section. I came across a guy in the middle of nowhere whose feet were in really bad shape and who could barely walk. I felt bad that I couldn’t do anything to help him and that his race was most definitely over.
At the next aid station there was a newspaper laying with an article about a TdG runner who had fallen to his death on Col de la Crosatie. We found that hard to believe and nobody seemed to be able to confirm the story or provide details. I really didn’t know what to make of this news. In the race I was running nothing had happened, and it was hard to properly evaluate the possibility that somebody had died a couple of days ago. It just seemed very remote. On the other hand the story could very well be true, in which case it wasn’t clear what this meant for me. My job was to keep going, so unless I was told otherwise, that’s what I would do. In hindsight I think my reaction is indicative of the distributed nature of this race. Runners were spread out over one hundred kilometers, each one intensely focused on a single goal and subject to very different experiences, yet loosely connected by the common concept of the race
And so I continued on towards Donnas. I was passed by the Japanese with the huge backpack and the tin cup dangling from it. I caught up to an older man who reminded me a lot of Hermi and who was pacing a young runner. Coming in to Donnas we struck up a conversation, and I would spend quite a bit of time in the coming days with Giovanni. We got to Donnas in decent time, but it was obvious that I wasn’t fast enough to see Rifugio Coda in daylight, the next major milestone after Donnas. I had a full meal with all possible trimmings, took a shower, and slept for a couple of hours. At this point I had no problem falling asleep, even though it was in the middle of the afternoon and relatively light in the dormitory.
My time savings were used up once again, but I asked Matilda to send me an SMS with the stats from the previous race, so I would know exactly how I was doing compared to 2010. Before Giovanni and I left I tried the special sock on again with which I had started the race and which was supposed to massage my Achilles tendon. However, it hurt like hell and I took it off immediately.
Giovanni and I set off from Donnas later in the afternoon. This time the course was slightly different; we were routed through the next town on what seemed like a tour of the scenic sites and there was also a guy in a devil costume, who accompanied us for a bit to keep us company.
We finally left town and got back to work: a first climb to Perloz, followed by a brief descent and a major climb to Rifugio Coda, which would take a few hours in the dark. First though, a farmer offered us some peaches from his orchard.
My heel started hurting quite a bit as we climbed through the chestnut forests, and while Giovanni was upfront and pulling, I was struggling behind and wondering what I could do to prevent Gressoney from being the end of this trip. The only thing, I kept telling myself, was to be smart and accept that this year it was about finishing, not about seeing new sections of the course in daylight. Meanwhile, Giovanni and I were making small talk, and my Italian was understandable. We got to Perloz a bit late, but the volunteers at the aid station were very friendly, and there was a lot of laughing until we finally took off again. We descended briefly to the valley floor and crossed a beautiful arched stone bridge. Here we bumped into the mute Korean for the first time, who was navigating this course without the ability to speak with anyone.
Once again we got to work and started the long climb to Rifugio Coda. This year it seemed less bad than in 2010, probably because I knew what I was in for: several hours of solid steep climbing in the dark. For the first hour we climbed past small hamlets; illuminated houses where people were settling in for an evening of domestic routine or bliss. Meanwhile we kept climbing, first through woods, then up past cow pastures to the Sassa aid station, where we changed into warmer clothes. Giovanni kept pushing and I was on his heels, not feeling bad at this point. Once we got to the technical section I took the lead, and after a while Rif. Coda came into sight, its light looking like a star high above us in the distance. As we crossed the open shoulder of the mountain it got extremely windy and very cold. Just before we reached the hut we could see lightning strikes in the clouds ahead of us, just at our elevation.
The main eating areas of the hut was crowded, so we found space downstairs with the first aid personnel and ate with them. It was around midnight. We told the captain of the Rifugio that we would like to sleep, so he kicked two other runners out of the dormitory and we crawled onto the still warm mattresses. Two hours later it was our turn to make room, as we stepped out into the bustling dining room to eat something and get dressed for the cold night.
Outside it was still very windy, but once we started descending the weather settled down. There was a lot of endless hiking in the dark, and by the time we got to Lago Vargno I was in bad shape and falling asleep while walking. It was getting light, which meant I was about 30 minutes behind schedule, but the kick associated with daybreak was nowhere to be seen. I took a vial with some extra-strong caffeine, but it made no difference whatsoever.
I surveyed the Lago Vargno hut with its rather rustic kitchen more for opportunities to sleep than for food, but there were no beds, only some local women who spoke in a strange dialect. A bathroom would have been nice too, but on that account as well this hut struck out. I made do with some of the cheese, meat, and chocolate and put my head down on the table for a nap.
It was obvious that Giovanni was currently in better shape than me and willing to move faster. We parted ways as I decided to head for the bushes to take care of business. After about 20 hours of company I was on my own again, and as I climbed toward the next pass I slowly recovered from my slump and took some time to assess my situation. The heels were fragile, but chances were good that they would hold up. After three days I was within an hour of my original pace from 2010 and failing in my goal to see new sections of the course in daylight. Should I try to pick up the speed or fall behind a bit deliberately?
Above all, I felt left alone and down. Perhaps it was the led sky, which was weighing on my mood. In any case, I crossed the Col Marmontana and made it down to the remote aid station at Lago Chiaro, which made a somewhat feral impression. Those volunteers looked as haggard as the runners, dressed in blankets and huddled around a fire, while their dog chased a couple of panicking cows to the lake.
My energy level returned on the next climb to Crenna deu Leui, a really steep but not too long climb to a narrow gap in a rocky ridge. A Canadian woman ahead of me was climbing well, but I managed to catch her before the pass. From here there was a nice view of the Matterhorn, but more importantly, also of the challenges on hand for today: the Col de Lazoney for this afternoon, Alpenzu at dusk, and Col Pinter in the distance for tonight. My leg felt better, but I had neither the motivation nor the appetite to attack on the downhill.
And so I descended at a determined, but unhurried pace to the next aid station, located on a wide saddle with a nice view. This aid station seemed more like an NGO operation. With a sizeable tent city as a backdrop there were plenty of aid station workers busying themselves with food preparation and presentation. Two older men were preparing polenta in a big kettle over an open fire, but I didn’t have time to wait and see how it tasted.
The following steep and somewhat slippery descent went well, and at the bottom I changed into my warm weather gear for the descent to Niel, which always feels more like an ascent. There are long traverses along the valley that just never end, and while Niel is at a lower elevation, the final descent came too late, when I was low on energy again. As a result I lost unnecessary time at the aid station. I ate a bit, then some more, and wandered in and out of the house in search of some espresso, but there was none.
My climb up to Col de Lazoney was spirited, but I was unable to hold off the Canadian woman who was now hiking with another woman. Cresting the pass, I entered the Loo valley, one of my favorite sections of the course. At this time of the year it has a magic and deserted feel. In summer this high and remote valley must be bustling with cows and sheep, based on the numerous cow paths and huts, but now it had the same “late in the season” feeling that I had about the race. I was on my way home, and on the map it was a straight shot west, ignoring all the ups and downs and turns. In reality it was still over 100km and over two days, but it helps to break a big challenge down into smaller sections, and in that sense, it helped to entertain the idea that the end was near. In reality, it was remarkably cold and grey, and I was painfully aware of the fact that I was slow and being passed by other runners.
I finally arrived at my favorite aid station of Unterloo, which I remembered fondly for its excellent selection of cheeses. This time the food was served inside the building, and there were different sausages, to choose from, along with lard and home-made Linzertorte. As usual, there was also red wine on hand, but I thought that would be pushing it. On the other hand, the lard tasted very good. I had caught up with a larger group of runners at the hut, and we all left the hut at about the same time. However, while the others took off I noticed that all the cheeses were on offer at the table outside. I felt a bit guilty for a moment before deciding that I could afford to waste a couple more minutes in a race where I wasn’t setting any speed records. Also, I had spent enough time alone, that another hour or two wouldn’t matter. So I sat down again, mentioned that I had good memories about this aid station, and inquired about the different cheeses and their provenance. The Peccorino was very good, and I took some along for the road.
Last time I had experienced several hallucinations on this section, but with the exception of the monster hallucinations entering Cogne they were less of an issue during this race. Now I just felt like this section was an uneventful grind, and indeed I arrived in Gressoney about an hour behind schedule.
By now the pit stops at the life bases were routine. I had a generous dinner, took a shower, and left again just as it was getting dark. At first we followed relatively large dirt roads along the river and passed through the town of Gressoney, before returning to our usual climbing routine. The brief flat section was followed by a really steep climb to the hamlet of Alpenzu, which I shared with a French guy.
Last time I seriously misjudged the following climb to Col Pinter and mentally lost it on that section by becoming very confused. I didn’t want that to happen again, so my plan was to sleep for an hour at Alpenzu. That turned out to be a brilliant decision, as I was shown to a lovely wood-paneled bedroom upstairs the dining room. None of these cots in a noisy gymnasium or matresses in a rifugio, still warm from the person who had just been kicked out, but beds with clean, plush covers and pillows! This felt like a guilty treat, but it was worth the 45 minute nap.
Downstairs again I got an espresso, ate a bit more, and set off to Col Pinter reasonably rested around 23:00. Once again I was alone, but I managed to catch and pass a few groups of runners. Despite the burst of energy the final climb to the pass was an exercise in patience. The descent was initially somewhat tricky (the trail is steep and not easy to find, and there is a lot lose gravel and rocks. Fortunately I was able to follow some people, but I later let them go as I slowed down to refuel with some almonds on the long, relatively easy section to Rifugio Crest. (As usual, I made a point of replenishing my energy levels on long downhills, so I’d be ready for the next climb. I also noticed that eating something helped me stay awake).
Shortly before Rifugio Crest I stumbled across an unannounced aid station. Apparently the official aid station was another 15 or 20 minutes down the road, but I wasn’t going to argue with this one. Based on the looks it was a restaurant with music and very good food. It was about 2:00 in the morning, but the place was hopping like any other watering hole with an after-work clientele. Inside I bumped into Giovanni, who was having problems with his knees and looking a bit worried. The stop at Alpenzu was just enough sleep to get me over Col Pinter; my plan was to get 1.5 hours sleep here to carry me through the next 24 hours. Again, I was shown to a very nice room with a double bed. Some other guy with the number 1026 was already sleeping in the right half of the bed. No sweat; I thought this might be a nice place to visit during less hurried times and fell asleep immediately. When I got up and grabbed my shoes and pack I was worried for a minute that 1026 might be oversleeping, but after a minute of deliberation I decided it wasn’t my problem to wake him up and remind him to get going.
Giovanni and I set off together and reached the official aid station a bit later, where we scanned our bracelets, grabbed some food and espresso before leaving for St. Jacques without further delay. For a little while we were joined by a guy Dave from the Bay Area, but eventually Dave pulled ahead and Giovanni fell behind, so I was alone again and feeling kind of stiff in my limbs.
This section of the trail was not too difficult. There are long sections of rolling dirt roads that just drag on, until the trail drops steeply in a technical section to the town of St. Jacques. Once again, I stocked up on almonds to ward off tiredness, but at this point I was too far gone that it would have made much of a difference.
I arrived in town just after daybreak, about 30 minutes behind schedule. The aid station was in the middle of town in what seemed like an official building. I used the bathroom, drank a big cup of black coffee, which did absolutely nothing to restart the engine, and headed out for the climb to Grand Tournalin. It was a lovely clear morning; frost on the ground, and beautiful views back to Col Pinter and all the terrain I had covered last night. Once the sun hit the trails I was able to change out of my cold gear. I reached the Grand Tournalin hut without problems and was greeted by a barrage of cow bells mounted on a rack and rang by a volunteer.
Giovanni caught up with me at Grand Tournalin; while his knees were shot on the downhill he was still climbing well. Gigi, a heavy-set older Italian guy who is a fixture on the TdG circuit, also caught up with me. He doesn’t look fast, but looks are deceiving. I had seen him in Donnas and Alpenzu, so he was easily keeping up with my slow pace. Gigi sat down next to me and started his breakfast off with a beer. I was a bit more modest and soon left for Col Nannaz. On the pleasant climb runner 1026 went flying past me; the guy I had shared a bed with in Crest last night. He was talking business on his mobile phone so I didn’t have a chance to tell him that I had been concerned that he would oversleep.
The whole area around Col Nannaz is beautiful. There is a panoramic view of the south side of the Aosta Valley and the opportunity to guess at where exactly we had spent the last few days and nights. The Matterhorn is nearby to the north, but it was shrouded in clouds this morning. The descent to Cretaz or Valtournanche was runnable, but every time I did try to run my heel started to hurt. Therefore, I walked down the entire way, alone. The story was becoming clear: I would be able to finish TdG as long as I didn’t push, and as long as I was patient and put in the hard work. I had mixed feelings about being smart. On the one hand I didn’t want to jeopardize the goal that I had worked towards for so many month and through so much adversity, on the other hand this race would be a grind with little upside for excitement and adventure.
Giovanni was now well behind me, even slower than I due to his knee problems. I did bump into the Canadian woman a couple of times, and eventually made it to the life base at Valtournanche around noon. I decided to eat, but not sleep here, in order to stay on schedule. The next section of the race has some very interesting and technical sections that I had hoped to see during the day. Last time I had experienced the rolling high-elevation climbs and descents between Bivacco Reboulaz, Rifugio Cuney, and Bivaco Rosaire Claremont in the dark, and the section was a complete mystery to me.
At lunch I briefly chatted with two French-speaking Swiss guys, but they weren’t ready to leave yet. I left Valtournanche a bit ahead of schedule and moved well on the climb up to the Lago Cignana dam and Rifugio Barmasse. There is a brief flat section after the dam, but soon the trail started descending, then climbing again. All of this was no problem, although it would have been nice to run with company, and it would have been nice to see the nearby Matterhorn without clouds (otherwise the weather was sunny).
I arrived at the aid station feeling good that I was a bit ahead of time and ready to explore terra incognita. The sun was low in the sky and the shadows were getting longer. I was in a hurry, but I was also starting to feel low on energy. I helped myself to the assorted food and dressed warmly for the coming night. Back on the trail I was unable to develop any speed, as the Canadian woman and some other runners passed me easily.
I was now well past the point where Hubert, the Austrian runner, and I had turned our headlamps on last time. But the valley just kept going on and on, a long bend that made it impossible to tell what lay ahead past the next pass. Additionally, it got very windy and once again, runner 1026 blew past me, fast and light-footed like the White Rabbit in Alice in the Wonderland.
And like Alice, I suddenly I became very confused. I was trying to recall the memories from the last race, but I couldn’t remember from where I knew Hubert or Gerhard, a German runner and colleague from TdG 2010. Once I couldn’t place them I also wasn’t sure anymore what Tor des Geants was. Suddenly reality was shattering like a crystal ball. I wasn’t sure if TdG was an organization with members, or if it was an event. I also couldn’t figure out if it was just an event for the roughly twenty people that I kept seeing, or if there were more people involved, and if so, how the event they were participating in was tied to the event or the reality in which I found myself. It was extremely unsettling to no longer comprehend the basic premise of my current situation and to be fully aware that I was losing my grip on reality. I realized I needed to find a way to reconstruct reality in order to keep going, but it was hard to wrap my mind around the fact that runners were spaced out over such a huge distance in space and time (some having finished the race already), while my concerns and the cold wind were so immediately tied to the here and now.
In hindsight the shattering of the crystal ball feels more understandable: TdG is really a collection of a several hundred different experiences, all loosely tied together by the nature of the event, but all ultimately very personal and different from each other. That is also why I had had conflicting feelings about the death of the Chinese. On the one hand it had occurred in the same event I was participating in and even in close proximity, on the other hand it had happened in a completely different world from mine.
I don’t know for how long I was in this confused state of mind, but fortunately two Danish guys caught up to me, both dressed in identical outfits, talking loudly and incessantly while they motored up the mountain. I latched on to them, and making small talk helped me reconnect with reality. Not much later we reached the pass, and the view at dusk into the adjoining valley with the Biouvac Reboulaz far below was lovely. I still felt a bit spooked, but the concentration required for the steep descent helped me reconnect with the present.
Biouvac Reboulaz was tiny and packed. The helpers received dinner first; shortly thereafter we were served broth with pasta. As I ate the two Swiss walked in. I convinced them to sleep 30 minutes now, because I didn’t want to battle the need to sleep on the difficult and precipitous section ahead. They agreed and we crawled into the still warm bunks and asked to be kicked out again in half an hour.
As we were leaving the hut my headlamp malfunctioned and I had to take a minute to change the batteries. The leader of the two Swiss was stressed, questioned if I was able to keep up with them, and took off with his buddy. I was pissed, suddenly wide awake, and ready to show them how much life I still had in me. I caught up with them in no time and passed them, determined to find another group to run with (everybody was moving through this section in groups). If not, I was going to run this section alone, as I had done much of the course already.
I soon latched onto two guys who were moving very well. I sort of invited myself to run with them, and they didn’t seem to object as long as I didn’t get in their way. There was no conversation between anybody; we had work to do, places to go, and it was the middle of the night. At the next rifugio, Rif. Cuney, a dining tent had been set up outside. I decided to sleep for another 90 minutes and was lead inside and upstairs. Upon leaving again I avoided the Swiss, who had also stopped here and were preparing to head out. Once again I latched on to two other runners like a stray dog, but gave them some distance since they seemed a bit weird. Eventually I arrived at Bivaco Rosaraire Clermont, the last and smallest one in this series of rifugios. The keeper was very friendly and offered me a chunk of sausage, but in my sleep deprived state I cut myself with his knife.
From here it was a short distance up to the Col Vessonaz, followed by a very steep descent on a trail of loose gravel and sand. I got passed by a few people and eventually the mute Korean caught up to me and latched on to me. At this point of the race and at two or three in the morning everybody can use some company! I visited the same spot as three years ago for a bathroom stop, which allowed the Swiss to catch up. They were rather conciliatory now, but I had other problems to worry about. This section of the race is definitely my least favorite. The steep descent from the Col Vessonaz is followed by an endless descent through a forested valley. It always reminded me of going down the drain, not only because it was the fourth night of the race and I was incredibly tired but also because for a long time you see no lights ahead and it is hard to believe that you can descend much further.
As feared, tiredness hit me again with all its force in the endless hours before dawn, when it finally should get light but it just doesn’t. Today my plan was to fight back, to let this sorry valley, this endless night, and this overwhelming tiredness know how I felt about them. I started talking to myself loudly about my thoughts and plans, shouting for good measure and carrying on. It felt OK to get worked up, but it was obvious that neither the valley nor the darkness cared about my rant. The trees stood silently in the dark, cold, and the valley kept descending, and I was alone.
As dawn broke I reached the river, and from there it was still quite a distance and another climb to the aid station in the town of Close. I arrived around 7:30am, about 90 minutes later than last time. It was encouraging that I was greeted by a sunny day, but it was also obvious that I was starting to feel rather bushed. Neither the sun nor a 30 minute nap helped me bounce back from the misery of last night. As I was picking myself and my gear up, the Italian couple from Cogne walked in, equally ragged and she suffering from severe foot pain. Seeing others in worse shape was small comfort, and I set off, hoping to regain my mojo on the trails.
On the next climb I struck up a conversation with the Canadian woman. She now got a name, Claire. Talking to a real person and feeling the warm sun made me feel more human again. It was a good day, and ever so slightly I started to smell the barn. All that was left was a climb to Col Brison, the steep descent to Ollomont, another long climb to Col Champillion, the descent to Bosses, a final climb to Col Malatra, and a final descent of a few hours to Courmayeur. Obviously, this would take nearly 24 hours, but in the grand scheme of things, we were getting close!
At the Brison L’Arp aid station before the Col Brison I ran into the same mountain guide as last time, and he spent a couple of minutes explaining the whole panorama of the Gran Paradiso range in the distance to me. The final climb to the Col Brison was relatively effortless with the exception of some annoying Spanish runners, who wouldn’t shut up. The view of Grand Combin and Mont Velan to the north in the back of the valley were spectacular; Col Champillon straight across from us, separated only by Ollomont, the town steep down below, a detour of about 1000m vertical drop on our destination for this afternoon.
The descent to Ollomont seemed much steeper than last time. It was too steep to run, so I didn’t bother and walked all the way down, which felt like it was defeating the purpose of the race. Granted, I was trying to walk fast, and it was the smart thing to do, but I still felt bad about it. The aid station I was looking forward to – a hut with a couple of old guys serving beverages - had been moved to a tent a bit further down. While the magic of the old aid station was missing, they still served good local cheese. Before Ollomont I caught up with Claire again. She was running or shuffling, and I delighted myself in proving that I could walk downhill as fast as she could run. Eventually I arrived in Ollomont, a bit behind schedule and feeling a bit like a slacker.
I was very well taken care of at the life base by a volunteer who took me under her wings and brought me whatever dishes I asked for, including a pan-fried piece of meat. On a side note, it was remarkable to see how many power strips the life bases offered to charge GPS watches and mobile phones. I took some time to freshen up and get everything ready for the last leg of the race.
Even though the basic outcome of the race was clear by now – a slow performance – I decided for old time sake to make a determined effort on the next climb and pass a few people. That worked reasonably well, in fact, at one point a photographer kept running next to me, taking pictures. Flattering, but a bit embarrassing. I made it to Rif. Champillon late in the afternoon. The hut was in the shade already, while most of the valley was still bathed in the warm September afternoon light. After Champillon two young guys came running down towards me carrying huge cow bells that they had been ringing up at the pass. They were in a great and contagious mood, so we had a nice chat about the fact that their bells were from the Valais in Switzerland. This was the last afternoon of the Tor des Geants, and although I felt a bit bad for not being faster, it was worth being able to appreciate the wonders of nature around me: there were patches of Edelweiss just below the pass, and as the afternoon sun set behind the ridge it lit up thousands of insects floating in the air. Pure magic.
At Col Champillon Claire, caught up with me again and we started the descent together. Minutes later the White Rabbit 1026 came flying past, light-footed as usual and likely well rested. Once the sun went down it got amazingly cold and windy. I was disappointed to see that the memorable “house of cheese” aid station at Alpeggio Ponteilles Damon had moved. Last time Gilles Allegret and I had spent some time sitting in the afternoon in front of this farm enjoying a wide range of cheeses and cured meats. Now the aid station had moved down the road a bit, and Claire and I spent time learning about her metal fabrication business in Calgary. Claire was her name, but I kept forgetting.
The new aid station didn’t disappoint. It was large and not as scenic, but in the large barn they offered polenta, ribs, and roast. Comfort food for the coming night! For some reason we ran into a completely new cast of runners at this aid station, including a young guy from Corsica. I’m not sure if these runners had fallen behind or if we had caught up to them, but it felt like running into a group of tourists you don’t know.
Claire and I left the aid station, ready for the night, and it was becoming clear that we would tackle Col Malatra, the last serious obstacle before Courmayeur, together. The long easy section to St. Rhemy was uneventful, but I started feeling royally tired again. Meanwhile, we passed the time with a long discussion about how much of an accomplishment ultrarunning really is, and if so, what the accomplishment consists of. I argued the point that it wasn’t too much of an accomplishment and required little technical skills. I argued that the determination to never give up was the main skill, as I tried to stay awake and formulate coherent sentences.
Before St. Rhemy Claire’s mother joined us, and while she was very friendly it was apparent once more how much a crew takes away from the experience of these events. The hardships and highs are something I can’t really savor with people who haven’t been part of the deprivations.
St. Rhemy was a much busier place than it had been three years ago. There were a lot of people milling around, doing supporting stuff of one sort or another, even though it was already about 9pm. Claire hung out with her family while I ate dinner, followed by a brief per forma nap on the top floor of an adjoining museum. Col Malatra and Courmayeur were so close now you could almost touch them, but really they were still about 12 hours away, and a lot could happen on the way. A nap was a bit of insurance for this last journey.
Claire and I joined up again, and as we were getting ready to leave a volunteer handed me one of the markers that were used to mark the course, a white plastic pole with a yellow TdG flag on top and a reflective tag below it. These were the flags that had been guiding us for the past five days and nights, the essence around which our efforts had revolved for the past five days. I’m not sure why the volunteer gave us these flags, but it meant more to me than he realized. In any case, there was a strange atmosphere in the air as straggling runners were sent off by their crews on their final journey. Granted, many runners were in poor shape, but the monumental atmosphere for this final climb seemed a bit out of proportion.
Thanks to a large cup of coffee I felt remarkably fresh as we wandered through the streets of St. Rhemy. I wanted to tackle this section with the same determination that Gilles and I had in 2010. This time the focus was slightly less than previously, knowing that we had the race in the bag, but we still paid attention to pace. On this last long climb we seemed to force ourselves to tell stories which we both knew were moderately interesting, but they helped us stay awake.
The aid station at the Lac Merdeux hut reminded me of a field hospital and carried the stench of death. It was warm and bright, but runners were everywhere, sleeping on benches and chairs. We ate something, drank some coffee (with no effect), and I took a one minute table top nap before I told Claire we needed to get out of here. I did not want to get infected by this sorry atmosphere!
The remaining climb to Col Malatra was comparatively brief. There were a few technical sections with metal later steps drilled into the rocks, but nothing to worry about. A couple of volunteers were looking out for our well-being as we crested the pass. The night sky was impressive: it looked like it might be getting light in the east, but considering it was about 3:30am, it must have been the amount of stars or the tired state of my mind which created that impression.
The descent was uneventful until pre-dawn, when we rounded a bend in the valley to come face to face with Les Grand Jorasses and Mont Blanc in the distance. It was a jaw-dropping experience. Both mountains stood there silently but radiated with an enormous presence. The glaciers glowed in the dark blue night sky, while fine whiffs of clouds formed around the peaks and were blown away by the wind. All I could think of were the opening bars of “The Magic Flute” by Mozart, when the kettle drums announce the begin of the opera. I had traveled for six days and had arrived at the exact moment to witness this moment, which was really a performance. It had been all worth it.
I stopped a couple more times to take photos, and as day broke all energy ran out of me. At this point I was so tired that my progress was reduced to a slow downhill walk. Reaching Rifugio Bonatti took forever, but I finally got there in quite a haze. By comparison, Bonatti is a very large Rifugio, located in a beautiful setting and reached in about three hours from Courmayeur. The hut was just coming to life with dozens of well-rested tourists eager to do stuff. I on the other hand was so tired I felt like I belonged to another species, one that sleeps when others wake. I sat on a bench and wanted to call my father to let him know when I would be in Courmayeur, but I fell asleep while I was dialing the number. On the second try I was successful.
At this point I was about four hours behind my schedule from 2010. I figured that was fine, because I finally got to see a section in daylight that I had previously passed in the dark. And besides, I didn’t care anymore. I needed a nap in order to continue, so I hit one of the cots in the tent structure they had set up for the runners. Unfortunately it was too cold to get much sleep, and anyway, on second thought I wasn’t going to blow much time this close to the finish line. Claire had continued on without a nap, and about thirty minutes later I was back on the trail, in pursuit.
As usual, I wanted to put in a valiant effort. This time I did OK on the rolling trails to Bertone, passing a couple of runners, but never catching up to Claire. The section between Rif. Bonatti and Rif. Bertone is when I mentally come to closure with the race. It is the last time you can really be alone with your mind, because the technical descent from Rif. Bertone to Courmayeur requires too much attention, and besides, there are too many spectators and well-wishers. So how did I feel? Mostly, I just felt done. I figured that I could cross TdG off my list of races to do. There was deserved satisfaction that I had pulled off a finish after a summer of worries about my tendons and six days of running conservatively. At the same time there was some ambivalence about my overall performance and my lack of improvement over 2010. But most of all, I felt mentally bushed.
Rif. Bertone was a party, but I didn’t spend much time there. In less than an hour I would be down in Courmayeur. I thanked the volunteers who filled my filthy cup one last time with Coke, and assured them that I would stay off Coke for a very long time. Dropping down to Courmayeur on the steep and rocky trail was one last ordeal for the quads and the feet, but it didn’t bother me anymore.
145 hours after I had left Courmayeur I was back again, happy to have finished again and satisfied in the knowledge, that my first finish wasn’t a one-off. I could handle Tor des Geants, even with a middling performance. I was welcomed by my father, we had a big ice cream, and with that the reality of normal life started setting in again. Followed weeks later by thoughts that I should take another crack at this race.