Photos from my race are here.
This was my third running of Tor des Geants. After a moderate performance in 2013, which was impacted by problems with tendonitis in both heels I was determined to do better in 2015. Specifically, the goal was to be 6 to 12 hours faster in order to see parts of the course in daylight which I had so far just seen at night, i.e., not at all.
Training had gone well until April, when injuries and a backache completely derailed me. With 100 days to go until the race I was reduced to short walks around the house of about 5 to 10 minutes in length. Then, in early July, things suddenly turned around, and I managed several weeks of very good training.
The last half hour before the start in Courmayeur was hectic. First, I had to buy a new backup headlamp because I noticed that the contacts on my other lamp were unreliable. Next, I had to get the sensor I was to wear on my foot from the medical research team, but their stand were nowhere to be found. All the while, it was raining steadily. I finally entered the race corral, which is where I found a researcher, and within minutes we were on our way out of town, encouraged by music and hundreds of spectators cheering and ringing bells.
The climb to Col d’Arp is no big deal. It takes a couple of hours, but it’s mainly an opportunity to catch up with other people and socialize. Same with the descent to La Thuile; it was all just a matter getting comfortable and of settling in to the coming week. I was rather pleased with my idea of wearing a cheap disposable rain poncho to keep dry but at the first aid station noticed that I was still soaked underneath it.
For some strange reason I got to La Thuile, the first town, later than expected, but it was nothing to worry about, everything was humming along and it even stopped raining more or less. The climb to Riffugio Deffeyes took a slightly different course this year and brought us past an impressive waterfall. After Deffeyes the weather briefly cleared up and we were treated to some sunny weather on the climb to Passo Alto, the first really lovely section of the course.
I was now moving rather fast and passing people, which allowed me to catch up to a new set of runners by the time I got to Planaval. This included Beat Jegerlehner, Miles, and Roger, who I hadn’t seen since the climb to Col Arp in the morning. My first goal of TdG, seeing Col de la Crosatie in daylight, was now within striking distance, although I realized that I was about to pay the price for running fast the past couple of hours.
Sure enough, all the pop was gone, and I was glad to get to the pass before it got dark. It had now started to rain again in earnest, so everyone took the opportunity to get dressed for a cold and wet night. The long descent to Planaval was a blur in several ways. It was windy at the top, dark, foggy, and rainy. At one point the cairn for the Chinese runner, who had fallen to his death here in 2013, and which runners now stopped to touch in silence, appeared. By the time I got to Planaval I was cold and hungry, so I sat down for a moment, but was happy to notice that I bounced back quickly.
The following flat section to Valgrisenche was unremarkable. I passed some time chatting with a Patty from Southern California, but I never saw who she was, because we were running in single file with our hoods up, do to the drizzle. The life base had moved to the far end of the town in a large sport center this year. It was a zoo with runners and crew people crowding the halls and dining rooms. I did the tests for the medical study and ate some dinner. My plan was to lay down briefly but not waste any time sleeping. I found a bedroom upstairs where a bed was still available and another runner loaned me his pillow while he went to have dinner. After laying on the bed for 20 minutes I was refreshed and ready to go again.
Unfortunately, it had started raining again by the time I left Valgrisenche. After I started the climb to Chalet d’Epee an Italian runner caught up with me. I offered to let him pass me, but he declined, and so we started making good time together, I in the lead, he following quietly behind, until we began some small talk and exchanged names. All the while, it started raining harder and harder, until eventually the trails turned into streams and we were soaked, especially our shoes. Nonetheless, we were still in pretty good spirits, especially once the light of the Rifugio emerged from the mist and sheets of rain. But as soon as I entered the Rifugio I started freezing, as my clothes were dripping wet. It was also the first time I get to see Dario’s face; it’s a strange fact with this race that you can run for hours with someone and have no idea how they look, as long as they are following you.
The staff at Chalet d’Epee always seems moderately welcoming, because they don’t allow runners to sleep here or use any space other than the dining room. This year they provided plastic buckets so we could wring our soaking clothes out, probably because they didn’t want to make a mess on the floor. After some pleading they also gave us newspapers to stuff our shoes, but after we spent some time regrouping, changing clothes, and eating a bit they encouraged us to leave again. More and more runners were arriving, and everyone was drenched. There was no space for everyone, so I lubed my feet, put on dry socks that got wet as soon as I put my shoes on, and off we went, Dario and I. As we were leaving the rifugio around 3:00 AM Beat Jegerlehner came in, drenched.
Outside it was still raining hard, but as we made our way towards the Col de Fenetre the rain seemed to be decreasing, while in the distance, up towards the pass, we could hear rolling thunder. On closer inspection in the light of the headlamp it became obvious that in fact the rain was not decreasing, but turning into snow. In fact, everything turned white rather quickly. That helped to keep the amount of water down on the trails, but in a tradeoff the snow-covered rocks on the trail got more slippery the higher we ascended.
Now here was a surprise I hadn’t really counted on. I started pondering this fact in my mind and wonder what it meant for the descent from Col de Fenetre. It is very steep and requires a lot of attention even in dry conditions. I couldn’t imagine how we would navigate the descent in a snow storm, but my overtired mind started analyzing likely solutions. Maybe the organizers had installed ropes to hold on to. But how would that work on a trail that zig-zags? Maybe they brought a bunch of crampons, which we could use to descend, and which they somehow pull back up again after we’re down. Hard to implement also. The most likely scenario, it dawned on me, is that they salted the trail. Perhaps that would be a bit of an environmental concern, but certainly feasible and worth the safety of the runners. Thus convinced, I continued up the trail with Dario, while nearby a large rockslide went down, angry stones rumbling threateningly for a long time in the dark. We continued ascending, because really, there was no other place to go at 3:00AM, and somehow the descent from Col de Fenetre to Rhemes would sort itself out once we got there.
Once we reached the pass in the driving snow the facts became obvious very quickly. The trail had not been salted. There were no organizers around. Apart from 4 or 5 other runners, Dario and I were here alone, and we have a problem to solve. In the light of our headlamps everything was white, snow coming down hard, and the trail covered with hard-packed, slippery snow. It was immediately clear that getting down here was going to require utmost attention and diligence, but looking on the positive side, the next hour was going to be a high-water mark in my running career.
We started down the trail in single-file, very carefully, placing one foot at a time, after first bracing ourselves with the poles. Without them, it would have been impossible to descend this trail with running shoes, it was just too steep and slippery. I comforted myself with the fact that in most places a fall would unlikely be fatal, but it would still be messy. In other places you simply didn’t want to take any chances. We finally made it down the very steep section unharmed. A couple of times someone fell and instantly took the person ahead of him off his feet too, but luckily nothing happened. Further down the terrain leveled off a bit and there was less snow, but it seemed even slipperier, because the trail was wetter again.
By about 5:30 the night sky started clearing up and we reached Rhemes at about 6:30, glad to be done with this night. Unfortunately, we were not done with the aftermath quite yet. The aid station was packed packed packed with runners, as we were told that the race was on hold and nobody was permitted to leave until the weather situation had been assessed. I wondered what this meant and hoped it wouldn’t be the end of the race, after what we had just been through. I wouldn’t mind changing into dry clothes, eating something, and then heading out again, but currently that was not possible. After a while I found a spot on some stairs and wedged myself in there, surrounded by other runners. I just sat there and waited, because there wasn’t enough space to do anything else.
At 7:00 the announcement came that the race was continuing, and with that hordes of runners were set in motion. It took nearly half an hour for the place to empty out and allow those who arrived lately to make use of the facilities, which now were a thorough mess. Dario was taken care by his girlfriend, while I found some food and started changing my clothes. At this point I needed to make some decisions about what I could possibly dry and what not. There was only so much space on my backpack from which I could hang clothes to dry. My long-sleeve warm shirt was soaked, and there was no way I could dry it. With a heavy heart I threw it in the trash, while the wet jacket, socks and pants found a spot on the side of the backpack. I lubed my feet, put on a pair of dry socks, and slipped into my still very wet shoes.
Once we were moderately recovered Dario and I left Rhemes around 8:30. He lives not too far from the Aosta valley and was calling relatives and friends for resupplies of clothes, and offered to organize a shoe dryer for me. In the meantime the weather had turned somewhat nice. Not great, but the best we would see this week. The climb to Col Entrelor was uneventful, as we looked back to the snow covered Col Fenetre, where we had spent a memorable night. The trail was now more clearly visible, and a helicopter was hovering over the pass, picking up, as we later learned, a runner suffering from hypothermia.
The final climb to Entrelor was covered in snow again. The temperature had dropped, and there were some snow flurries in the air. Many of the rocks were covered by a sheet of ice, which required some attention as we made our way to the Col. The aid station worker in the orange rescue shelter just beyond the pass reacted a bit testily when we asked him about the trail conditions over at Col Loson. He had spent the night up on the mountain too and seemed to know as little as we did. Col Loson is higher than Entrelor and Fenetre, and it also has a descent that is dangerous in bad conditions. Looming on the other side of the horizon, it was definitely covered in snow.
Dario and I started our descent in no big hurry. On the one hand my feet were hurting now because they were still wet and it felt like the skin was cracking. No reason to go all out and make things worse at this point. On the other hand we were still a bit shell-shocked from last night and not sure if it would be possible at all to cross Col Loson. In Eaux Rousse we took a good break at the aid station and spent some time drying our clothes while we were eating. We were not the only ones, several runners were sitting along a wall, barefoot, exchanging stories. In the meantime Beat and Miles showed up, having been held back last night at Chalet d’Epee. There was also a strong Danish runner who I recognized from 2013, but he had decided to withdraw from the race, because he didn’t think it was worth the risk of crossing the 3300m high Col Loson in snow. There was still no reliable information from the race organizers about the conditions ahead, but we figured that a lot of runners had crossed the pass ahead of us, and none seemed to have returned, suggesting that somehow it was manageable.
Eventually Beat, Miles, Dario, and I left Eaux Rousse, now definitely behind schedule, but restored and in good spirits. Miles and I tried some extra strength caffeine pills for fun, but they had no discernible impact. It was enjoyable company, and at one point we stopped to say hi to Beat’s girlfriend and eat the roasted almonds Mark made for me a couple of weeks ago. But as usual, Col Loson was about my least favorite climb in this race. I don’t mind the earlier passes because mentally they fit in the effort of a long one-day race. The latter passes are fine because at that point my mind has adjusted and doesn’t really care too much anymore about distance and effort. Tor des Geants reminds me of a space probe leaving the earth orbit. It’s fine once you break out of earth’s gravity and head towards Pluto, but it is hard to break away from earth’s gravitational pull. And Col Loson is right in that transition zone.
In the latter stages of the climb Beat and Miles broke away from Dario and me as we spent a few minutes to eat and get dressed for the colder weather. It was six o’clock by the time we reached Col Loson, the time I originally hoped to be in Cogne. But we figured that the bad weather last night had cost us a good four hours. There was still a fair amount of snow on the pass, but it turned out that our concerns had been overblown. The trail was muddy and wet, but essentially free of snow. I did wonder however what would happen when it froze again at night, because there were sections where you were not allowed to fall.
We reached the Rifugio Sella after night fall. The hut is an interesting mix of tourists who are sitting down for dinner after a day of hiking and the runners who are checking in for quick calories and possibly some sleep before heading back out into the night. Dario and I decided to partake of both worlds. We bought a prosciutto sandwich for 5 Euros, which turned out to be huge, but surprisingly dry and inedible. We also decided to get some sleep here rather than at the second life base in Cogne, which was just about two hours down the road: various people suggested that it is easier to get some restful sleep in the rifugios than in the noisy life bases. This turned out to be the case for me. Dario on the other hand had a hard time falling asleep and told me he would go ahead to Cogne and meet me there. I slept great and woke up on my own after about 60 or 90 minutes, ahead of the time I had asked to be woken up. It always takes a while to get all the gear and clothing ready, but finally I was ready to head out into the cold; for the first time with music.
I’m excited, I’m alone and it feels like I’m taking myself to the concert. First off, “Pet Sounds” by the Beach Boys. I crank up the music good and loud, and fly down the trail, singing out loud and passing other runners. Next up is my favorite CD by Arcade Fire; they take me all the way down to the paved road and on into Cogne. This time there are no hallucinations, just a giant music rush and two of about the best ever TdG hours. That didn’t mean that my brain wasn’t fried after 36 hours without sleeping: as I got to Cogne I realized that I couldn’t remember what this town was called. Is it Cluny? Close? I searched for signs on all the houses because I wanted to be prepared and know where I was. Finally, a sign: I’m in Cogne.
The life base was the usual hub of business, even though it was a bit after midnight. I bumped into Beat and Jill; he was just wrapping up dinner and getting ready to leave. I sat down and treated myself to a meal of everything: fried chicken, pasta, boiled eggs, yogurt, tuna, fruit, and soup. Dario was getting ready to leave again too; he had a whole new changes of clothes, but since I was self-supported my choices were limited to whatever was in my drop bag. Since I already slept I didn’t need to waste much time in Cogne. I just spend the 5 to 10 minutes I did at every life base for Gregoires scientific studies (checking that the recording device works, testing leg strength and flexibility with various exercises, and finally sprinting about 40m).
It was about 2AM by the time we headed out. In town we ran into a tent set up by a local coffee shop, where the employees were serving espressos to all runners. They claimed they had been working since Monday morning, and they looked a bit like it, but since we’re kindred spirits we had a nice chat. After this diversion it was off into the dark and the cold of the night, but Dario and I moved fast as we started the climb to Rifugio Sogne, an undertaking that was going to take a few hours. We killed time by calculating where were going to pick up time for a Friday evening finish. Even though we had lost several hours due to bad weather, the race was still long enough that we could get back on track. Or so we thought, even though we knew that more bad weather was in the forecast.
Eventually tiredness got the better of my high spirits and the worst early morning battle against sleepiness began, as we climbed towards the tree line. The light from my headlamp created the illusion that I was on a ridge with small conifers, which I was clearly not, even though I checked occasionally to be sure. Tiredness started gripping and strangling me, and I couldn’t fight it off. All I could do was try to stay on Dario’s heels and hope that Sogne didn’t take too long to show up. The trail to the rifugio was more or less visible due to the headlamps ahead, but that didn’t help much; it was a slog that didn’t end.
When we finally got to Sogne there was couch in the dining area. I collapsed into it and fell asleep instantly, before I could unzip my jacket. Dario woke me up and asked me if I was ready to go – five minutes of sleep does wonders; I said sure, grabbed some food, and we were out the door and into the cold.
We made short work of the hike up to the pass, where we bumped into Roger as it was getting light. Another lead sky with thunderstorm clouds loomed on the horizon. There was a bit of chit chat and picture taking among the various runners before we took off on the long downhill to Donnas. While the ankle on left foot started hurting more than intermittently, as it had before, it was still OK, and was something to contemplate while killing time. It was a relatively relaxed morning, we chatted with Dario and Roger as we descended this relatively easy section. Beat had spoken highly of sleeping in Dondenas, and I was wondering if this was an idea to try.
In Dondenas I had some more of the standard food, which now started to look boring. I then headed to the dormitory. It was certainly fine, but as I wasn’t too sleepy and felt guilty sleeping mid-morning I got up again before one hour was over and got my gear ready to continue. Dario was also ready to leave, so we set off together for Champorcher. Not very fast at first, as he was still making phone calls, but on the steep section we picked up speed and flew (He was joined by his girlfriend, who also runs). Here again, there were some people/runners on the trail cheering with bells.
At the aid station tent in Champorcher I felt remarkably good. I got interviewed by a woman from the Japanese TV station who was following the Asian runners and filming their every move, before an Italian runner came over and hammed it up with the reporter.
In short order we left again. The rocky and technical section after Champorcher was fine, but now the left ankle really started hurting and I started to seriously consider different options. Should I switch to the other shoes with less tread in Donnas? Should I take a knife to these shoes and cut the offending part off (Roger and I had spoken about people customize their Hokas during the climb to Col Arp; this might be an opportunity to do more work on the shoes).
By the time we finally got to Pontbosset we had slowed down considerably. I because of the ankle, Dario because he overdid the downhill running to Champorcher and his knee was now hurting. At the aid station I borrowed a kitchen knife and cut some hard material off the shoe where it cupped the ankle. It worked like a charm and I was very proud that I had averted disaster and trimmed my shoe. In hindsight I should have customized the right shoe as well.
I got some spring back in my step now and was looking forwards to getting to Donnas, while Dario was holding back because of his knee. Sometimes I waited for him, but eventually he told me to get going if I want to make up time and go for the Friday evening finish. I took off and ran towards Donnas. I was also in a hurry because Matilda had told me that rain was imminent again (I had been checking in regularly to get updates from the weather radar. In this case, light rain starting after 3pm, turning hard after about 8pm, and clearing by about 2am). Indeed, by the time I got to Donnas it was raining, but not hard enough to warrant a jacket.
The aid station in Donnas reminded me of the Astrodome after Katrina. People and gear everywhere, runners in different forms of disrepair. I meet Beat, Jill, and Miles, who were eating, wrapping up, and getting ready to leave. I also ate a bit of everything that was on display, decided against taking a shower as in Cogne (because everything was dirty anyway; I asked Jill how I smelled on a scale from 1 to 10 and she reassured me that I was not worse than anybody else).
The weather was still holding up, but I figured I needed some sleep before the next climb, which isn’t to be underestimated. It’s about 5 or 6 hours to Rif. Coda, and the following descent to Lago Vargno is rather technical in places. I laid down on a cot in the dormitory and tried to get comfortable but instantly realized that sleep was not going to happen. Suffering an energy burst at an inopportune moment I was too ready to go, too amped up, so I jumped out of bed again, grabbed my stuff (phone and chargers) and headed for Gregoire’s medical tests. A few minutes later I was on my way, dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, because even though it looked like it was about to rain it was not too cold.
I instantly fell into a funk and a bad mood. Leaving without sleeping was a cardinal mistake. I knew from firsthand experience the kind of trouble you can get into when tiredness makes you disoriented, and here I was heading into another night of rain, not rested, vulnerable and unprepared, not in the company of runners I knew. I had knowingly screwed up. I sized up the runners around me and they all seemed in a better mental state. There was a Swiss guy from the Jura, but he didn’t seem very friendly and took off.
The first part of the next leg involves a couple of useless exercises, if that is the right term. First we went on a sightseeing tour of Pont St. Martin and then we climbed 500m to Perloz on the right side of the valley, only to descend again to the valley floor and climb 1500m meters on the left side of the valley. Was there anything redeeming about this exercise? Yes, it turned out that there were a couple of experiences that helped me regain my mental footing. First, a brother and sister, about 5 and 7, who had set up a small table in their driveway and were offering runners cups of water, sparkling or still, your choice. By special request you could also get a small handful of roasted peanuts. The two were a bit shy, but their hearts were in the right spot. Second was the aid station in Perloz, which I reached after dark. It seemed like the whole town had congregated in the aid station tent. I was one of the few runners at the party, which featured a lot of home-made baked goods and an above-average selection of cured meats and cheese. At first I was concerned that the townspeople were eating our food, but I quickly reconsidered. In the corner a woman was playing the accordion while a guy accompanied her on a saxophone. Maybe this night wasn’t going to be as bad as I had feared a couple of hours ago!
Stuffed with a bunch of puff pastries and now in a better mood I took off, more confident than in Donnas that I wouldn’t implode on the coming climb. It still wasn’t raining, even though a call to Matilda confirmed that it was only a matter of time before it would start raining hard again.
A quick run down to the stone arched bridge, which was nicely decorated with lights and balloons this year, another nice touch to this race. I was still alone, but it didn’t matter, because now it was time to get to work, and time for another visit to my private concert hall. I turned on the music and got going, feeling splendid. As I mentioned previously, I much prefer the second half of TdG, because it takes long for my mind to settle into the endurance time frame. Only now is when the space probe is heading to Uranus or Pluto, only now is when you are ready to think about things for hours, to let your mind truly wander.
It took me the length of an Arcade Fire and Beach Boys CD to reach the Sassa aid station, roughly half way up the mountain. Rif. Coda was another 2 or 2.5 hrs higher, but I decided not to take any chances and get some sleep at Sassa. I was told that a cot would be available in 15 minutes, at 23:00, so I ate some food and then had some more.
At 10:58 the aid station volunteer led us to the building and shook awake a few sleeping runners, telling them to get going. One woman complained under her breath that she was entitled to two more minutes, but still grabbed her belongings and left her cot. I pulled her covers over me and was asleep in no time, hoping to make the most of the two hours of sleep I was entitled to. This time I slept well too; usually my dreams involve some infinite loop around some stupid topic (once I got all worked up in a dream about somebody who claimed he had invented an algorithm that could solve every problem in the world).
Two hours later an aid station volunteer shook my leg. She was sympathetic, but the runners standing behind her had designs on our cots, so a couple of other sleepers and I collected our clothes and packs and headed back out into the cold. I felt good and enjoyed the remaining climb, even though it was 1:00AM and I was alone. Occasionally spectators would appear out of the dark, offering words of encouragement. These couldn’t be ordinary spectators; they had to be “off-duty” runners who had participated in past years, because who else would be roaming the mountain side in the early hours of the morning, thinking this was perfectly normal? They got it.
Music carried me along, but with about another 45 minutes before I reached Rifugio Coda it started raining and I had to change into my rain gear. Rifugio Coda sits rather exposed on a ridge high above the valley and is exposed to the brunt of bad weather. Other years were very windy as well, but tonight it was foggy and the rain was coming in horizontally. I wasn’t always able to see the next course marking and it took my full attention to stay on the trail. Eventually the faint light of the Rifugio became visible.
Inside it was the usual hive of activity; on the ground floor there was aid station food and dining and people coming and upstairs there was another dining area. This year the area around the wood burning stove, which kept the room cozy warm, was littered with wet running shoes, while jackets hung from every possible place on the ceiling. According to Matilda’s radar map this current storm cell was going to taper off after a few hours, with a relatively dry morning being followed by more rain in the afternoon. I figured it would be a good idea to bank two more hours of sleep here and leave Coda fresh. Both in 2010 and 2013 I had always been incredibly tired between Coda and Lago Vargno and had moved at a snail’s pace. This year it was really a matter of trying to make most of weather windows.
It was no problem getting a place to sleep, and by coincidence I was shown a bunk bed right above Dario, who must have passed me while I slept at Sella. I slept for two hours but when I got up the weather hadn’t improved. It was still raining hard, foggy, and windy. I went downstairs to eat some food, then called Matilda to get an update on the weather. Things weren’t looking good. There would be no meaningful improvement today. Yellow and blue stuff (meaning hard or medium rain) was moving through the area in swirls, with a possible break in the afternoon. Wednesday night it was going to rain again and keep doing so until Thursday afternoon, by when the weather would finally improve.
At this point I decided that my challenge was to make it to Thursday afternoon with some dry clothes and intact feet and without losing any more time. By then I would probably be somewhere between Valtournanche and Oyace, and I could try to go faster and pick up lost time. My body had been feeling well and strong, I just had to stay in the game until Thursday evening.
I lubed my feet and got ready to head out in my wet shoes, but fortunately my rain pants and jacket were relatively dry again. Because of the weather conditions we weren’t allowed to leave alone, so it took a moment to find others who were also ready to go. Dario was up, but in no hurry to leave. I set off with an Italian father-son team and a Korean guy. Just a bit below the rifugio the trail leaves the exposed ridge, and with that the strong wind died down, but it kept raining steadily. The Korean was in good spirits, telling me how he enjoyed the technical trails and showing off the traction of his shoes. One advantage of being behind schedule was that I got to see this section of the course in daylight, while the past two times I had passed through here in the dark. Unfortunately there was not much to see except for low hanging clouds and a constant rain, albeit not very heavy at times but enough to keep things wet.
As I hustled along I started asking myself what I was getting out of the experience this year. I was certainly not considering dropping now, but I had come here for the beauty of nature and landscape, the light, the weather, and for the past days this had been in short supply and would continue to be for at least another day. There was no doubt that I could continue, but what was I getting out of it? I knew the course well, especially on this time trajectory, and what was the point in seeing the same things once more in crappy weather?
I realized that in order to keep my motivation up I needed to find some new inspiration, something that could keep me happy and motivated. If it wasn’t nature this year it had to be human interactions, and those are easily found on this course. It came naturally, but I resolved to draw strength not just from the human interactions and kindness.
In addition to the runners it was the aid station volunteers who were sharing our hardships for days on end; they were out here with us, in the same boat. The next aid station we reached was an improvised aid station where a couple of locals had set up tables and umbrellas in front of their farm house and were serving a selection of fresh plums, bread with Nutella and jam, and various beverages. Interestingly several signs notified us that this was an unofficial aid station, but their friendliness and compassion for us was definitely genuine.
At the next aid station at Lago Vargno we were led into the building taken care of with parental attention after registering our time. I was now travelling with a group of Japanese runners, and the volunteers were trying very hard to communicate with them. The main attraction was a large meat slicing machine, with which the volunteers cut large pieces of ham for us. It reminded me a bit of a family dinner; about a dozen runners seated around a large table with food being passed around from one to another, and volunteers asking what they could bring us. Meanwhile, it continued to rain outside.
After ten or fifteen minutes of hospitality I was on my way again around 9:00 AM, now towards Col Marmontera and the aid station at Lago Chiaro. The climb is not difficult; in fact it even follows dirt roads in places. I passed a young Frenchman who was clearly going through a rough patch and zig-zagging on the dirt road like he was drunk. The poor guy thought the next aid station was the life base in Gressoney, but I informed him that we would be lucky if we would reach Gressoney before dark, and there were several passes and valleys between here and there. He sat down at the side of the road, and I thought it was none of my business to suggest that he pull the plug on this adventure. Deciding to drop from this race is a way too personal decision to be influenced by outside input, but I was sure that he was done.
The rain had now slowed to a drizzle, but it was still very wet and grey. There were no views whatsoever from Col Marmotera, so I wasted no time and dropped down to Lago Chiaro and the small aid station by the shore. This aid station is very remote and basic, as the volunteers camp in tents and cook over a fire. This year the setup looked a bit more professional than previously, but I still couldn’t believe my eyes when I caught sight of freshly stewed beef next to the regular aid station food as I came in from the rain under the tarp, which covered an improvised kitchen with a camp fire, over which pots with beef and sausage were boiling. Please let this be true; please let there be real food! It was. Also on the menu was “brodo”, a spicy soup with pasta. The Asians and I approached like hungry dogs, but it quickly became apparent that this was for real and there was enough food for everyone. If ever we needed a shot of motivation on this dreary day, this was it. There was a wonderful sense of satisfaction in the air as the cook started slicing some huge sausages and feeding us. What did it matter today if I spent another 5 minutes here?
Eventually I left the aid station with a group of other runners, meat stuck in my teeth that I was in no rush to get rid of, as it still tasted great. The rain had now slowed to a light drizzle or a heavy fog. Enough to put the hood down, but not enough to take off the rain jacket. The next destination was the Crenna da Leui pass, a very steep but unproblematic and not very long climb. On nice days you can see the Matterhorn, the Monte Rosa, and quite a bit of the course ahead, but today visibility was about 20 meters and it felt like twilight, even though it must have been just past noon. So, down we went on the trail through the bolder strewn fields to the next aid station, paying attention not to get the shoes soaked in the many puddles that had formed on the trail.
Eventually the aid station emerged from the fog, another outpost of humanity, and as it turned out, culinary delights. But first, I had to sign in. At this point my race bid was so wet that my number – 557- was no longer legible and one of the volunteers had to draw it on my blank bib with a ballpoint pen. As the previous aid station, this one is remote and supported by a crew of volunteers who camp in tents. The aid station is located on a flat ridge and consists of a couple of emergency boxes flown in by helicopter and some tarps to provide shelter from the elements. In this case not only had the supplies been flown in, but also a cast iron stove to cook warm meals for the runners. I was no longer surprised, but certainly delighted to see that food, hospitality, and people were saving the day in the absence of good weather and making the slog across the rain-soaked mountains a worthwhile experience. At this aid station we sat down to a meal of polenta and pan-fried meat, seasoned in a sauce of red wine. It may have been cold, wet, and windy, but it didn’t really matter as we, a group of about ten runners, sat huddled under the tarp and ate from plastic bowls. Again, I was spending a few minutes more than planned, but why worry when the cooks had put so much effort into this meal?
The next section to the hamlet of Niel is not one of my favorite ones, but by this year’s standards it wasn’t too bad. It had definitely stopped raining now, although the valleys were still lined with low hanging clouds. The steep descent from the aid station was muddy, wet, and very slippery, and required my full attention. On a few instances my poles saved me from a fall, and only once did I hit the ground.
It was now mid-afternoon, and for some reason I was losing speed, as people of the Asian cluster I had been travelling with moved past me, one by one. It didn’t help that I noticed that the lace on my left shoe had ripped. It was one of those shoe laces you don’t tie but cinch with a plastic clamp, so the repair wasn’t going to be straightforward. I was about 45 minutes from the aid station and while the shoe was lose, it wasn’t a huge problem, provided they had string at the aid station. If not, it was another matter.
Niel was crowded with runners and crew, and for some reason I have never cared much for this aid station. My first order of business was to organize some string to repair my shoe lace, and a first aid guy helped me find something. The string was flimsy and it took some trying to find a solution that could hold until Gressoney, but eventually I was satisfied and turned to eating. Meanwhile, a minor drama unfolded next to me as the son of a father-son team I had met at Rif. Coda was forced to drop due to knee problems, and the kid did not take it lightly. It was an emotional affair for everyone involved, but the father did a great job of comforting his son and keeping things in perspective. It was also a reminder of what a privilege it is to stay in the race, even in lousy weather.
The climb to Col Lazoney is not a big deal, although it started raining again during the ascent. Col Lazoney usually has a watershed feeling for me. From here you have a first view of Mont Blanc in the far distance which suggests the finish is within reach, and it’s also the start to one of the most beautiful sections of the course; the Loo valley with its pastures and farms. This year it felt more like the Scottish Highlands: a low fog hung over the dull landscape and a heavy drizzle added to the dark puddles which dotted the grass. Today the challenge was to avoid the puddles in order to keep the wet shoes from getting soaked further, rather than contemplating the finish in Courmayeur in a couple days time.
Oberloo looked picturesque as usual, but now it was raining, cold, and a barking dog made the hamlet rather uninviting. I was more interested in the aid station at Unterloo anyway, about another 20 minutes down the trail and noteworthy for its selection of local cheeses. It didn’t disappoint, as it marked the final culinary stop on my way from Donnas to Gressoney, which had made this section entirely memorable despite the poor weather. The guardian of the hut was cutting pieces of cured meat, and I asked for a selection of the different cheeses, which they brought into the hut for me, along with a bowl of brodo.
Outside Coldplay’s “A sky full of stars” was playing from loudspeakers, as I sat there with a big smile on my face. True, I had spent more time than necessary at the aid stations today. True, the sky, getting darker now, was definitely not full of stars. True, I still had to figure out how to survive the bad weather until 5pm tomorrow afternoon. But at this very moment, Tor des Geants was utter bliss, and it was not the first time I had felt like this on this rainy day. That had to count for something.
About 20 minutes after leaving the aid station it got dark and I had to put on the headlamp; just in time for the really steep and rocky section down to the valley floor in Gressoney. The bliss wore off quickly as I slipped and fell a couple of times, and my feet hurt because the wet skin was starting to crack again.
Once I got onto the paved road heading into Gressoney I called Matilda to find out more about the weather radar. It looked bad for the whole night and well into Thursday. I was wondering if I should leave Gressoney without delay and try to get to Alpenzu or Crest before it started raining really hard. Or should I plan a longer break in Saint Jaques tomorrow morning?
All these deliberations didn’t matter much when I arrived at the life base and was told that the race was on hold until Thursday morning due to bad weather. Instinctively I knew right then that the race was over. It just seemed logistically impossible to pause a race for so long, but it wasn’t for me to worry. I would get an unexpected full night sleep, but first I had to have dinner and take a shower. The gym in Gressoney was crowded with runners, lots of people were sleeping already, more were socializing or getting organized, wet clothes hanging from all railings to dry.
I was well-fed and ready to find a place to sleep when I saw the young French guy from Lago Vargno this morning stager into the gym. I thought this morning that he was done, but here he was, shuffling into the gym with the most amazing blank stare I’ve ever seen. Now he was more than cooked. He told me he thought he had been well prepared for this race, but he never imagined it would be this difficult.
I was lucky that I could spread out all my stuff to dry at the booth of the researchers, who were still measuring my physical decay as I left every life base. Surprisingly, there were enough cots for all the runners, and after 10pm I fell into a fitful sleep, even though I was relatively certain that the race was done.
A lot of people were already milling around when I got up next morning. There was no official information, though the suspension of the race was supposed to last through 8:00 AM which was just around the corner. There seemed to be a lot of half-hearted but pointless activity in the gym but it was obvious that the weather outside was still bad, and Matilda’s weather forecast remained unchanged.
At some point during all the socializing a runner got up, and read from a smart phone that we all had been brave, but the race was done. His voice cracked, and that was that. A statement of the obvious, but no official announcement. After some hesitation the statement became accepted as fact, because everyone started drinking beer and packing for the buses, which were supposed to come and pick us up. And so it ended, not a blow, not a slap in the face, not a complete surprise, but somehow much more insidious: never in the past year had I envisioned this particular outcome. My dreams had always ended with the easy cruise from Rif. Bonatti to Rif. Bertone, followed by the steep rocky descent to Courmayeur, turning the corner into town, and crossing the finish line with a final spirited effort. That scenario, or else, some serious, race-ending medical condition. A bus ride to Courmayeur had never figured in my planning, no matter how real it was right now. After days of adversity and a total focus on staying fit to finish strong and overcoming adversity it felt like the rules of the game had been re-written. While the decision was entirely understandable, I couldn’t help but feel shortchanged. I had worked for a year to get to Courmayeur on my own power, and by Friday evening.
Instead, we arrived in the comfort of a nice bus, collected our bags, and didn’t worry about the rain anymore as I walked back to the hotel. It didn’t sting that much at the moment, but it did sink in later.