Mind Over Matter or Matter over Mind – A Story of Tor Des Geants 2014

Mind Over Matter or Matter over Mind – A Story of Tor Des Geants 2014

Tor Des Geants is a 200-mile race with 79,000 ft of unrelenting elevation that won my heart in 2013.  It was the hardest thing I have ever done still is to this day.  This year’s story is a little different than last years, it went a little like this:

I arrived in Italy, uncertain whether I had trained enough, with the memories and experience of last year’s race in my mind.  Uncertain how I would handle this year’s challenges. There were a few differences between this year and last years training. I hadn’t used the altitude tent this year as I had planned. I’d decided that there wasn’t enough evidence to support its benefits from last year.  I also had a few weeks of training interrupted due to an old hip injury in the summer and wasn’t certain it would stay away for 200 miles.

I was anxious and excited to get back onto the gruelling trails. The trails of Tor Des Geants are absolutely nothing like what I’ve trained on locally.  I was excited to be back at Hotel Croux in Courmayeur with the nicest staff of any hotel I’ve ever been and to catch up with my friend Gretel who was now living in Australia and my friend Deb who I’d done a bit of training with over the summer.

I was mildly disappointed this year to find that the race decided to take on a different flavour in terms of giving special privileges to “elite runners”.  I really appreciated the inclusive spirit of this race previously and how I felt everyone was treated equally.  A group of us headed to package pick up early on Saturday as this year was the first year for a gear check to be in place.  We waited almost 2 hours for them to open the doors and were first in line.  Others in line behind us I heard waited for up to 4 hours to get through the line.  The elites (some who had never run the race before) had a special ceremony to hand out their bibs to them….to which most people didn’t attend (us included) because we were too busy packing our own stuff and getting ready for the week ahead.

Race morning was filled with excitement and fear of what the week would have in store for us.  We took some last minute photos and then we were off on time this year at 10 am sharp!  The crowd was just as overwhelming as it had been the previous year and the start line brought tears to my eyes, thinking “this is it” what I’ve been anticipating for a whole year!

STAGE 1

The first climb started slowly, after running through town it’s onto the single track and you don’t really want to waste energy passing anyone here so you just file in behind and adopt the pace of the people in front of you.

Gretel was just ahead of me on the first climb so we took some selfies from the top, think we got our faces with no view!  We were then down into La Thuile (the 21k mark), in what I thought was close to my goal time, I think we were 10 minutes ahead of my time from last year. I wanted to be on par with last year’s time through the first life base.  I then began up the second climb only to find that I didn’t feel super well.  I slowed the pace and let lots of people go ahead.  I pulled into Refugio Deffeyes and was hoping for the polenta blocks they had last year.  I grabbed a bunch and put them in a baggie and then tried to eat one with some salami. Unfortunately, I gagged and had to throw it in the garbage.

I then decided oranges, apples and other fruit would be a good choice. My stomach handled those okay and I was off to the rest of the climb, slowly, slowly.  I didn’t feel well through this section at all so I stopped a lot and felt like I was crawling and eventually my quads cramped. This was weird as I was only at 30km and I felt like I was moving at a slug’s pace.  I stopped let it pass got over the mountain, and went down the other side.  I went slowly on the way down,  as I was concerned about the cramping and was not sure what the issue was.

It’s a hugely rocky, technical descent anyway so I couldn’t really bomb it anyhow! I ran into Nikki and Suzy, some girls I had met from Calgary pre race and we did the 3rd climb mostly together after a break for some soup and coke and crackers at the Refugio.

On this climb up Col Crosatie, I again experienced cramping in my quads.  I was concerned and confused about this and then Nikki said she was getting quad cramps every time she got over 2600m, which then made me realize it was the altitude!  We crested the climb, I ate some chips at the top and we headed down to the town of Planaval together.  At this point, I thought I was way slower than my time from last year. I didn’t mind but assumed we’d be turning our headlamps on sooner than later.

I guess I misjudged how long it would take us to get down, plus this year it was not super muddy and gross through this section like last year so it was much easier to run.  This year we didn’t need headlamps until we arrived at Planaval which worried me a little. I decided to down and walk a lot on the 5k left to the life base in Valgrisenche the 49km mark.  I think it took 11 hours to get there….I was aiming for 12-12.5.  At the life base, I took some time to eat, change socks and shoes, etc and then was off into the night.

Stage 2

My stomach was not feeling amazing as I left so I went very slowly up the climb to try to settle it as I wanted to try to keep the calories going in.  At the Refugio Chalet de l’Epee I decided to try to lie down and sleep for a 20-minute nap as that seemed to do me a world of good last year and I thought it might settle my stomach.  It seemed to work for a short period. I had one of the most energetic periods I’d had in the entire race, but it didn’t last long but it felt amazing!

I felt really good for most of the climb up Col Fenetre and for a lot of the way down although you have to take the way down pretty easy as it’s quite steep and treacherous for awhile.  I ran into my friends Bruce and Martha Grant at the Rhemes Notre Dame Refugio, chatted quickly and decided my stomach sucked but I had some energy from the sleep so I’d try to keep eating and keep climbing while I had energy.

The energy lasted until the altitude appeared to suck it all away again as I got higher on Col Entrelor. As I got higher and higher on this climb I couldn’t possibly climb any slower.  It felt as if I did I would stop and if I climbed any faster I would die, so I essentially had one pace, which felt S-L-O-W. I took my time on the super long downhill. It was a neverending long switchback.

When I finally got down to Eax Rouses, I was still struggling to eat and quite concerned with my ability to climb the longest climb up to 3,299 meters and approximately a 6000ft climb.

I ate some soup with lots of crackers and asked for a bed, hoping I could sleep this off.  To my dismay, they had no beds.  And wouldn’t for another 15 minutes.  Oh hell! I decided that I might as well just start climbing slowly.  This time there were no quad cramps, but just more of my S-L-O-W what felt like snail pace up this mountain.

There was nothing I could do but what my body would allow. I didn’t pass a single person, but lots of people passed me. I also got super irritable at the Europeans cutting all the switchbacks which made me feel like they were cheating!  I eventually made it to the top (barely) then took some photos and off I went.

My new friend Graham was with me for a bit until I was way-yy too slow for him.  This section is quite beautiful and I somewhat enjoyed the run down but felt super slow and still couldn’t find that feeling of “running free” that I love in sections like this.  When I made it to Cogne, I kind of started freaking out that I had started to feel the dreaded mountain cough already. This was concerning to me as last year it wasn’t until Donnas that I felt a cough. I became worried it would take me out, so I slowed the pace drastically into Cogne and walked a lot of the runnable section. I hoped some food and sleep at Cogne would bring me to life for the first time in a couple days!

Stage 3

I managed to eat some chicken and potatoes at Cogne as well as 1.5 hours sleep but still left not sure how I was feeling but I was on the road again.  The lovely little espresso shop was giving out espresso to runners so of course, I stopped for a shot and then was off!  I ran/walked the flat (yes flat!!) section leading to the trail and up, up and away I went.  This year instead of putting us on forest service road we were on a totally different trail through a more forested section with some beautiful views. However, I was confused here as I kept thinking it was taking me forever to get to the FSR.  Finally, a French guy caught up to me and we hike/run to the Refugio together. He had also finished last year and commented that this trail was new!  I wasn’t going crazy!

As we approached the Refugio, there was a big moon and we made it all the way sans headlamps even though it was quite dark.  Here I was pretty nauseous again but I managed some soup with crackers from the world’s friendliest volunteer. I wish I got a photo with her she was so sweet and she found me milk for my coffee which was amazing!

After the small climb to the terrain changes a bit and it’s rocky and a kind of forest service road like the mix.  My headlamp was dying so I stopped to change batteries and then got super nauseous.  As I decided to stop and take my iron pill I thought maybe a Pepto Bismol would help!  Not so much. They both came back up within 2 minutes and I found myself sitting on the side of the trail throwing up when some friendly Euros stopped to see if I was ok!  I tried another Pepto Bismol and I was off.

When I made the next Refugio, luckily they had yoghurt!!  It was the best! I ate a couple and moseyed on.   I think I may have a felt a bit better on the next section, made my way down to Chardonnay for some soup and off I went again.

The next section was pretty horrible. I think I blocked it out of my brain but I remember it was pouring rain, downhill for EVER and EVER, with a lot of rocky technical sections and I remember feeling nauseous….again!  Finally got out of the trail and on the road to Donnas which is 7km of horrible and I walked a lot of it to try to settle my stomach yet again.

At Donnas I tried to eat, doubt I had much as I can’t remember, I met Meghan Hicks and Bryon Powell here and Nicki was here.  I slept for 1.5hr and then woke up burning hot, man it was hot in there!  I then remember trying to get more calories in by adding some kind of rice salad to my minestrone soup, it was all I could do to try to keep some calories in.

Stage 4

Climbing out of Donnas was cruel, it’s several km of stairs and you go up for what feels like an eternity and then they take you down again, make you go through town, get a photo with the Devil and go back up the stairs again!

As I left the Perloz Refugio, I climbed in the heat to Sassa and ALL I thought about the entire time was eating an entire jug of gelato.  I don’t think I thought about anything else.  So when I got to Refugio Sassa I asked them for some gelato, no one spoke English there but eventually managed to ask for ice cream and they only had Cherry which is the one flavour of ice cream I don’t like if you can believe that! So oranges it was, as they only had bread and salami which I couldn’t stomach.

Up, up and away some more, until I was crawling my way to Cody when some familiar faces started to pop up like my friends Gretel and Deb.  We were all at Refugio Cody together and Deb and I decided to run together for awhile from here.  I definitely welcomed the company!  We down-hilled it to Lago Varno together which is where these amazing, lovely Italian women cooked up some pasta (not so great) and some of the most delicious stewed meat ever and knowing what I know now I should have eaten the whole pot as I could get it down!  Anyhow, onwards and upwards.

This section is like FSR leading to some scrambly terrain, then climbing over rocks for awhile kind of Haines Valley like for Vancouverites.  It started to pour rain pretty quickly so we had to suit up in all our gear.  The rocky section was fairly uneventful, a few bivouac aid stations in the middle of nowhere were welcome sites and we had small bits of polenta.

The descent to Niel, on the other hand, was like a slip and slide, I decided I was done running and had taken up mud wrestling. We could not stay on our feet to save our lives despite having poles.  It was kind of fun and frustrating all in one as we definitely didn’t want to get hurt.  The Refugio at Niel was the worst.  We decided we had to sleep as we were REALLY tired but had to do so in the world’s coldest tents despite putting on my long john’s and all of my clothes.

The food was horrendous, the pasta and the polenta were gross and I could only manage a few bites of polenta.  They managed to find me one yoghurt but there was only 1 so that’s all the calories I got!   We survived and climbed out.  On the way up we ran into a woman who was attempting this race with a heart problem, and she was having issues and needed us to put her legs up for her!  We found out later that she ended up making it further but eventually needed a helicopter rescue.  We found our way through the night fairly uneventfully through to Gressoney.  Tired and hungry and since it was the morning I was excited for my freeze dried bacon and eggs that would be in my drop bag.

Stage 5

Last year this stage for me was the absolute worst.  I expected to be awesome as its’ only 36km and it was hell.  This time, it started pretty fun, Gretel joined us for a little chat on the flats. I felt good on the initial climb to Refugio Alpenzu where we enjoyed an awesome espresso and had a few laughs.  My goal going up the rest was to try to keep some calories coming in.  From the beginning of the race it was just so difficult to get calories in between Refugios because it was so much work.  I had to chew my food to a pulp in order to get it down or I would gag.  So all the way up I kept trying to eat my nuts, bars and chips and whatever I could, but it was hard.

On the downhill, there was an amazing restaurant that is an “unofficial” aid station along the way with a bunch of food out.  One thing was this panna cotta which there was only one left so Deb and I shared, it was delicious, I wished there were 10.  Next up there was a Refugio with freshly squeezed OJ, which was also amazing!

We made it to St. Jacques to find they didn’t have much in the way of food.  I asked for the pizza to no avail!!  We had to settle for soup and then on with the climb out to Grand Tournalin.  I was not well on this forever climb but there was a part at the bottom where went through a sheep farm and Deb so excited it was fun! She said this was her favourite part of the whole race!  I was slow on the climb but excited for the run down into Valtourneche as I remember loving at last year and really finding my mojo on the way down. Unfortunately, this year, no such success!  Just couldn’t find the groove, it was still beautiful!

At Valtourneche there was a bit of a tragedy as I had messed up and put our bags in the wrong spot at Gressoney and we found this out right about now!  I was getting excited for my chicken korma dried meal, to no avail as our bags were NOT there.  After spending some time trying to sort this out with the friendly but no English speaking volunteers we thought our bags would arrive in 2 hours.  We ate a bit and caught 3 hours of z’s.  When we awoke, we still had no bags and it took me quite awhile to figure out that our bags were not coming and would be in Ollomont.  This was kind of okay as we had everything we needed luckily and they gave me the batteries I needed for my headlamp.  We tried to eat some crappy aid station food, for me this consisted of some kind of potato/chicken salad.  I got it down…probably only 500 calories of the 5000 I needed, but onwards and upwards we went.

Stage 6

Valtourneche to Ollomont is one of the most spectacular sections as practically the whole thing is spent up in the alpine.  I couldn’t quite take in just how spectacular it was this time as it felt so unbelievably and relentlessly hard!  It’s hard to describe but it’s just hard, long ups and steep downs…what else is new?  It’s cold up in this section at night, really cold and in contrast some of the Refugios have the fire on so hot I had to take off almost all my clothes down to my sports bra when I went in or I’d overheat.

We trudged on the never ending climbs and ate soup at Refugios. We tried to nap on a table but were told we weren’t allowed so off we went.  I paid for soup at the Coney Refugio but I was quite impatient with the poor volunteers when my soup wasn’t ready very quickly.  A sign that I was tired and feeling pretty crusty at this point!  We socialized with a friendly pacer at one of the Refugios as he was drinking wine and eating some amazing looking salami. Oh, how I wished my stomach would have let me eat some!

Finally, we were on the steep descent down to Oyace, where I dreamt there would be lasagna.  This section feels a bit more like home near the bottom with some more forested technical trail for a bit, then it just becomes endless and you start to love it less because you are thinking about lasagna in Oyace!

We went from freezing cold up in the alpine, down to what felt like 30-degree heat in Oyace.  I feel like I might have a good grasp on what it feels like to be menopausal after doing this race twice.   Anyhow, we made it and when I asked for Lasagna the woman told me they had some but it was just for the volunteers. I gave her my best pouty face and guess what?  It worked!!  I got delicious homemade lasagna and so did Deb!

I was mildly gagging on it as my stomach wasn’t overly excited but I made sure these calories got down as I knew I needed them.   All we had to do was get over Col Brison in this damn scorching heat.  Luckily we were in the trees a bit, and off we went.  I started climbing this section fairly strong as I knew we could rest in Ollomont and I just wanted to get there.  Part way through, I felt a strange sensation in my body and didn’t feel super well, but I tried to ignore and just get there.  Up, up, up and down the horrible toe crunching descent we went, I’m pretty sure at some point I cried and I told Deb we only had 2 climbs left and we were going to finish this thing!

We made it to Ollomont where life took an interesting turn. After a bit of yoghurt and a short sleep in Ollomont, my body decided it was kind of done.  I won’t get into details on a blog, if you know me, I’ve probably told you, but essentially I had some internal bleeding, lost a lot of blood and decided it was because I hadn’t eaten enough, so downed my dehydrated chicken korma, drank a liter of water and tried the next climb.

Stage 7

This stage is 2 climbs, that’s all I had left.  I started the climb telling myself and Deb if I couldn’t do it I’d turn back around and head to the med tent.  I made it to the Refugio of Col Champillon, slowly but I did it and then made sure to eat.  We had some soup and up we climbed.  I looked at Deb and said, “this took 20 minutes last year, should take us max 30 minutes to the top and then it’s about 2 hours down.” Wow!  This climb that took 20 minutes last year, I think took 1 hour this year and it was probably the hardest thing I have ever done.  I looked at Deb and said “pretty sure this is what it must feel like to climb Everest”.  I had to rest every 2 steps, it was a horrible feeling.  Eventually, we made it up and then down the never ending descent and Dave, Deb’s husband was there waiting for her.  It was great to see a friendly face, I told him I needed a hug.  I think ate soup and off we went.

The trail to St. Rhemy is up for a small bit then pretty much flat/downhill for 11km.  I ran most of it last year.  This year I could barely walk it, it was pretty awful.  I told Deb to go without me and she made Dave stay with me to make sure I was okay.  All I could think was poor Dave, I was feeling so sorry for myself, all I wanted to do was lay on the side of the trail.   I was done.  Not an ounce more energy left in my entire body.  I was not sure I was going to make to St. Rhemy, but Dave talked me through it even though I was the grumpiest person alive. If I were him I would have left me for dead!

After an eternity, we eventually made it to St. Rhemy where I spent a few hours in the medical room until they told me my time was up.  There was no English speaking medical people so it was a bit hard to explain my problem but I slept and drank coke for a bit until finally I asked the medical lady if I should continue and she shook her head no.  I knew that already but I needed someone to say it.  I knew the next climb was to 10, 000 feet, it’s my favourite climb, it’s spectacular with views of Mont Blanc and all the surrounding mountains, but there was no way this body was making it this time around.

So, long story short, bracelet was cut off, crying ensued, I then ended up in the medical tent in Courmayeur followed by an ambulance ride to the Aosta hospital, 4 liters of fluid and an almost overnight stay at the hospital with a hemoglobin level of 78 and almost blood transfusion which I opted out of and then signed myself out of the hospital against medical advice.

After all I had a lot of eating and resting on the beach to do in Croatia and I didn’t want to mess up these plans!!  I’m home now and it’s a month later and I know as hard as it was to make that decision with 30k and one big climb left, there is no way I could have done it without a likely helicopter rescue and I was not about to sacrifice my 2 weeks in Croatia for a race I’d already finished once!  There will be other races and life will go on!  I won’t be defined by this DNF, it’s just a good story and a few lessons learned sometimes like it or not, you have to listen to your body!

Jackie Muir 
Kintec Race Team

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