Tor Des Geants, Take 3 – Getting the Monkey Off My Back
Anyone who has ever DNF’d can probably understand the feelings I had as I headed toward the big race of this season: the Tor Des Geants. Both of my attempts at big races the past 2 summers ended with DNFs, both for different reasons. But this left me extremely nervous; I desperately needed to get this monkey off my back and get to a damn finish line.
At the same time, I had a lot of struggles through training in the summer. I had taken on a new position at work, and I was renovating my house. On top of this, I was trying to maintain some kind of social life outside of running!
This would be my third year at this race for me. As my friend Dana and I were deciding on our adventure for this year – which happened to be my 40th birthday celebration – we struggled to find something we thought was as great an adventure as our JMT adventure last year, and my previous adventures at Tor Des Geants. Dana had never done Tor Des Geants before, and I was hesitant to this time. My last attempt in 2014 ended in a hospital bed, having completed 300 of the then-332 kilometres race – which is now 338 kilometres. However, I also felt the need to prove to myself one more time that I could get to that finish line!
So, we let the lottery gods make that decision for us and threw our names in the hat. As of March 1st, Tor Des Geants was officially on our calendars, as well as that of our good friend and training buddy Julie. She threw her name in the hat with the intention of having an extra ticket for next year’s lottery!
I don’t actually love doing the same races over and over again, but there is something about the adventure of Tor Des Geants and the problem solving that you go through to get to the finish line, that just keeps people coming back over and over. It’s like a metaphor for life, you have so many highs and lows and you have to keep riding that wave until you get to the end. I have friends who’ve gone on week long meditation/mindfulness retreats – where you don’t talk for up to 10 days – and I have described Tor Des Geants as a trail runners form of a meditation retreat.
When I’m on the trail, I am so in the moment that I literally don’t think about anything aside from how I feel, whether I need to eat, drink, throw up, go to the bathroom, put on extra clothes, or sleep. I can’t think of any other moments in life where I am completely in the moment for as long. I just came back from a yoga class where I can barely stay in the moment for a whole minute!
The last time I did this race, I suffered for the entire five days I was out there. My main struggle was nausea and being able to eat barely anything aside from yogurt. Because of that, I survived on very few calories until my body finally gave in and landed me in the hospital. This time, I was going to hope for no nausea, but be prepared if it appeared.
My primary focus was calories, just taking in as many calories as possible, but my other goal was to start slow and to complete the first 50 kilometres no faster than 12 hours.
Courmayeur to Valgrisenche (50 kilometres, 4,747 metres/15,574 feet elevation)
This section had been lengthened this year, from 47 kilometres to 50 kilometres. Dana and I were together for a lot of time in this section. We started out appropriately slow, getting caught in the bottleneck and train that is Col D’Arp. Near the top, my impatience got the best of me and I began to pass a few people. Dana and I took a summit selfie and off we went.
We stuck together through the first passes, Dana, being stronger uphill, went ahead on the ups or started behind me and caught up. Meanwhile, being stronger downhill, I would go a bit faster on the downs. We’d make a pretty good team if this was a team event!
We arrived together at the first life base exactly 12 hours in, and I was pretty excited about this. This was the first glimpse that, yet again, my stomach was not super thrilled with me. I watched Dana eat an entire plate of pasta as I attempted some potatoes and chicken unsuccessfully, but managed to keep some Minestrone soup and crackers. I took some potatoes for the road, in hopes my stomach would turn around.
Valgrisenche to Cogne (58 kilometres, 5,802 metres/19,146 feet elevation)
I told Dana about how steep Col Fenetre was, but it’s one of those sections you need to experience to understand. We started downhill together, with plans to sleep at Rhemy de Notre Dame. I arrived before Dana and tried to get us both a bed, but was only able to get one for myself – she’d have to get one when she arrived. I asked to sleep for 45 minutes, but after 30 minutes, my growling stomach kept me awake. In the hurry to get my bed, I didn’t eat, which was not a good move.
When I got up to see Dana was sleeping, a woman wanted my bed. I tried to eat a few potatoes as I was getting dressed, but I had to run outside so I could vomit – awesome! I ended up hanging out here for another 30 to 45 minutes, trying to eat, and left with some saltine crackers. I hoped they’d get me to the summit of Col Entrelor.
As I crawled up this mountain with every person and their dog passing me, I wondered how this race was going to go and pondered how exactly I was going to get myself through this and get my stomach on track. I managed to get over the mountain – which felt like a complete miracle. As I got down to Eaux Rousse, I thought I’d try to sleep again before the long climb up Col Loson. I was given a real bed in a room with four other people and tried to sleep for another 30 minutes. Yet again, I couldn’t sleep! I also struggled to eat enough, as nothing appealed and soup and broth and crackers were not going down smoothly. I pulled out my secret weapon that I brought from home – instant oatmeal! However, when asked some Italians to put in a small amount of hot water, I got back some oatmeal soup! Well, I drained off the water and managed to eat two whole packs of oatmeal.
I went off in search of Col Loson, until I began to sleepily walk up the mountain. Everyone passed me; I felt like the world’s biggest slug crawling up this mountain. I was falling asleep, and I kept stopping and sitting down to take 10-second breaks to nap.
Then I remembered: I had caffeine pills!
I took one, but half an hour later, I was still falling asleep. So I took another one, and it must have worked because at 12,000 feet, I finally got some legs and began passing people! I got to the Col, which is one of my favorite points in this race: it began hailing quite awesomely. It piled up quickly, and on the downhill, there was a thick layer of hail on the awesome sketchy section on the other side. I tread lightly until it felt a bit safer to run again.
As I approached Cogne, I saw what looked like Dana in the distance ahead – and it was! I called her name and she was shocked to see me! She thought I had left her when in reality, I was trying to sleep and I had thought she had gone way ahead! We were thrilled to see each other and ran into Cogne together where Josee and Curraro from Hotel Croux met us. As Curraro tried to help us and get us anything we needed, I proceeded to run outside start vomiting again. I managed to get some Minestrone soup down and took a ginger Gravol. Some sleep would be helpful, so we tried to get a few more hours of sleep in.
Cogne to Donnas (45 kilometres 2,698 metres/8,903 feet elevation)
The noisy life base at Cogne was keeping us awake, so Dana and I set off together. Off we went into the night, stopping for some espresso on the way out of town. This section is one long climb followed by 30 kilometres of downhill , which sounds a lot easier than it is! We got up to Refugio Sogna de Berdze, where I was looking forward to some Minestrone soup – only to find the Refugio was closed. There were two race volunteers standing outside taking numbers with a couple of litres of water.
It felt like a long way to Dondena, with no real aid for a long time, and I wasn’t really able to eat much. At Dondena, Dana needed some sleep. I needed to make it to Donna’s before sleeping again, so I set off into the night, feeling sort of lonely.
At Chardonnay, I sat for another long time, trying to eat some soup. As I got on my way to Pont Bosset I began to fall asleep on my feet yet again. I decided to take a caffeine pill, but it didn’t go down with my swig of water. I got a chalky sensation in my mouth from the pill – which led to wolfing all my cookies yet again!
All that hard work to get the soup down, and it was all gone, even the anti-nausea Gravol came back up! But the incident woke me up, and off I went in search of Pont Bosset and Donnas. This section, of course, is probably my least favorite. I don’t know if it’s because I’m always tired, but I don’t find it particularly motivating.
I finally reached Donna’s for some much-needed sleep, and I managed to get some sleep because it’s quieter here than it is in Cogne. However, I woke earlier than I planned as the sleeping room was unbearably hot – it was like an oven! Dana is sleeping beside me, and when I woke her up, we talked about leaving Donna’s together. She wasn’t impressed with me because she had finally gotten to sleep for the first time!
Before heading out, I tried to eat some more calories. So I sit across from my German friend Constantine. As I tried to get some soup and crackers down, he has a tray of pasta, a couple pieces of chicken, a glass of milk, a chocolate bar and he’s downing 3,000 calories like there is no tomorrow. I hated him in that moment.
Dana and I ended up splitting up here. She took awhile getting ready, and I was ready to go, so I just assumed I’d see her somewhere on the climb.
Donna’s to Gressoney – Getting in some calories! (54 kilometres 6,086 metres/20,083 feet elevation)
The climb up to Coda is long and hot: You go from 300 metres to 2,224 metres in the heat of the day and starts as a long flight of stairs.
I like this climb in a way. There are a few short reprieves along the way, but it’s pretty straightforward: just keep climbing. I started than usual in this section. But when I went through Pont Saint Ann, I happened to notice some people eating gelato. I asked where it came from and there just so happened to be a gelato shop right in front of me – so I went in and got some gelato! I paid $2.50 for the gelato, and the man gave me a souvenir buff too!
Walking up the stairs eating my gelato with world’s biggest smile on my face, I was ecstatic. As I reached the next town of Perloz, I managed to enjoy some freshly squeezed orange juice. Did it ever hit the spot! I also managed to get down some delicious, sweet, pastry things they always have there.
Up to Sasa, which is also a restaurant. I inquired as to whether they sold ice cream. To my delight, they had both popsicles and ice cream sandwiches. The guy thought I was a bit crazy for wanting both, but I happily ate an entire ice cream sandwich and an entire Popsicle. I felt like I was winning in the world of calories, and I was thrilled!
Coda is the halfway mark, and we were rewarded with some spectacular views. However, my stomach didn’t get excited about it, so I spent about 20 minutes forcing down a bowl of broth and crackers. But it all came back up! Back in, I went to try to sort it out and eat some more oatmeal. A paramedic was immediately brought down to see me, so I hoped the oatmeal would go down smooth. It did, and I got right out of there.
Into the night I went. This next section was mildly different than before as there was new Refugio replacing Lago Vargna called Balma. I got some hot water for oatmeal after a lot of work to get Italians to understand that I just wanted some hot water. I also managed to get a mattress and catch an amazing hour of sleep before heading off to the two bivouac aid stations.
This section is a bit like climbing up and down the boulders of Hanes Valley for an entire night. As I approached the first bivouac, I smelled meat cooking on a fire. It smelled delicious, but would my stomach tolerate it? I was willing to try! Luckily, it did – and it hit the spot.
The second bivouac not quite so successful, however. Off I went to Niel. This is the world’s longest downhill, and when I finally reached Niel, I asked for some cooked meat.
The woman looked at me like I was crazy, so I was about to eat some left over oatmeal when I noticed a man beside me eating polenta with meat sauce! I asked if I could just have a bowl of meat sauce. She was a bit stingy with the sauce, but what I got was incredible. I managed to get a little bit more for seconds before lying down for a 15-minute nap and heading off to Gressoney.
I had never seen Col Lasoney in the daylight before, so this was exciting and brand new to me. The Refugio about 10 kilometres down from Gressoney is the best if you have an appetite and can eat all sorts of cheeses and good meats. I couldn’t, but they happened to ask if I wanted some homemade ravioli. I thought I’d try, so I sat for about 15 minutes with the volunteers here and enjoyed some fun conversation and delicious ravioli.
I wasn’t sure whether to sleep as it was daytime but I thought it best to try. I managed to find a room with 20 beds and only one other person, so I had a solid two hours of shut-eye.
Gressoney to Valtournenche (33 kilometres, 3,187 metres/10,517 feet elevation)
As I left Gressoney, I had my gear checked for the first time. The weather had now changed, rain and thundershowers were in the forecast. I was dressed for the sun when I arrived, so I had to quickly throw on all my rain gear as I left. Despite the rain, I went in search of another gelato shop. But I found much less success, as it was midday and all the shops were closed for siesta.
I gave up and got on with it. My stomach was still feeling off, so I couldn’t have the fantastic coffee at Refugio Alpenzu. But I sat and managed to eat a small snack with my friend Constantine before heading up Col Pinter in the strange combination of rain and sun. It was hard to figure out what gear to keep on during this climb!
At Refugio Crest, I asked for ice cream and the ladies there managed to find me some small individual tub of ice cream. In the meantime, I had managed to notice cereal and milk on the table. I ate two bowls of cereal and a small tub of ice cream – I was still winning the game of calories!
When I got to Champorcher, I asked a man how long it was to St. Jacques, and he said three kilometres flat – I’d be there in 30 minutes. What he didn’t tell me was that there was no longer a Refugio in St. Jacques, so off I went without filling my water or anything because I thought I’d refill in St. Jacques!
I ended up leaving Champorcher with a Taiwanese man who didn’t really speak English. We climbed up to Grand Tournalin together, and I wasn’t sure if I was slowing him down. When the weather turned and I stopped to put on my rain pants, he stopped with me. Although we didn’t talk much, it was dark and rainy and I had begun to fall asleep until there was lightning on the neighboring mountain. I really appreciated the company.
At Grand Tournalin, I ate some fruit salad and met a new friend who wanted some company going over Col Nana in the dark and stormy weather – so the three of us set off together. With two more hours sleep at Valtournenche, I tried to down some of my camping meal. While I managed to eat about ¼ of, it was delicious and better than nothing.
Valtournenche to Ollomont (48 kilometres, 4,904 metres/16,183 feet elevation)
They say this race gets easier after Gressoney and if you look at the elevation profile, technically, it does. But I warn you, don’t underestimate this section.
It’s long, and most of it is between 2,500 metres and 2,800 metres. I left Valtournenche at about 6 a.m. , while it was pouring. I wore all my rain gear leaving the life base, a bit tired. But as I got climbing, I felt stronger and I started to think about the last time I’d done this race and how I did not feel this strong throughout the entire race, and I was thrilled.
I was alone through this whole section, so I talked to myself a lot. It was cold, wet, and windy. Just when you thought it couldn’t rain any harder or the wind couldn’t blow any harder, it did.
In this section, my mantra was to “keep moving, or you’ll die.”
My new Arcteryx Norvan rain jacket worked phenomenally in these conditions. While my couple-years-old/worn-a-lot Pertex shield rain pants could use a replacement, they were super light and dried exceptionally fast. My ski gloves, not quite as waterproof as I would have liked for 8 hours spent in solidly in the rain, made my hands looked like I’d been in the bath for five days.
A volunteer at Cuney was sweet enough to give me surgical gloves to wear under my gloves. I had some of these with me, but I had left them in my drop bag! All that said, I survived and lived to tell the story!
I made sure to wash and dry my feet and change my socks when the rain stopped at Oyace, which is one climb away from Ollomont. They usually have lasagna at Oyace, and much to my dismay, they didn’t this year. I ate some oatmeal down to fuel the next climb over to Ollomont. It was nice to have some dry weather for the next little bump Col Bruson and over to Ollomont.
I wasn’t sure whether to sleep in Ollomont, but thought it best to try. I ate a little bit and put water in my camping meal. Later, I asked to sleep for an hour and a half and asked for a room rather than the tent outside. I was given a room but there were four other people already sleeping there, so I just lied down in my warm clothes, without a blanket, and I was out like a light.
The volunteer woke me up an hour later, saying, “I know you said an hour and a half, but It’s been an hour.” I thought to myself, why waste any more time? Let’s get out of here!
I struggled to eat about a quarter of my camping meal and I was off, intending to get to the finish!
Ollomont to Courmayeur (50 kilometres, 4,210 metres/13,893 feet elevation)
This was it, and I was excited.
I searched for Col de Champillon and St. Remy de Bosses. As I made it to Refugio Champillon, I was looking for the delicious Minestrone soup they had had there in previous years, only to find out they didn’t have it. However, they did have some delicious bread, and the kind lady there managed to get some butter. So I made due with bread, butter, and a bit of broth to dip it in.
The climb to the Col was almost the same as I remembered it three years ago — pretty easy comparably, and it took about 20 minutes.
Two years ago, I was there in really bad shape and it took me an hour; it felt like Everest. Now, I was feeling good, overall. I had fun with the downhill and worked my way to the next Refugio, didn’t stay long, and then was off to St. Rhemy to Bosses. I was capable of running in this section, and ran downhill and most of the flats.
Last time, I had walked this entire section gasping for air if I even imagined running. At Bosses, I tried to eat a few cookies and get in some calories. Next, I was off to Malatra. I was happy to leave here, this was where I had DNF’d last time. Although it was the right decision, it wasn’t fun.
I walked a lot on this uphill toward Malatra, and felt like I was moving at a decent pace until some guy ran past me like I was standing still. If I remember right, I was at Refugio Frassati for about 10 minutes, and in those 10 minutes, it started to snow. The weather wasn’t likely to get any better so I thought it best to get out of there. It snowed more and more as I approached the Col, and it was definitely much more precarious at the top in the snow than it was my first time at sunrise on a beautifully sunny day!
I debated putting on my microspikes, but couldn’t be bothered. However, I did make good use of the chains and careful footing along the way.
As I got to the Col, I tried to take a photo of myself in the snow – but my phone was dead. I thought once again about getting my spikes out, but figured the snow would be short-lived. I found it somewhat challenging to get my temperature right in this last section; I kept adjusting my clothes. I thought it would be beautiful and warm at the bottom, but it just kept getting rainier and colder.
Refugio Bertone was a lifetime away, and it felt like there was more uphill, muddy and slippery than I remembered. I was emotional and tired and happy to be done and sad it was about to be over – all at the same time. As I finally reached Refugio Bertone, I was drenched to the bone.
They asked if I wanted to come in for a cup of tea.
“No way,” I said. “I’m off to the finish.”
As I started the very-much downhill/technical section into Courmayeur, I must have passed about ten people just walking down. I was in no mood to walk a downhill, I was hauling, or at least that’s what it felt like after 200 miles.
They changed the finish this year, so you have to run the opposite direction through town. I felt so emotional, I had waited to so long for my chance for this second finish – and yet it was the most anti-climactic finish ever. It was pouring rain, and no one I knew was there, my phone was dead, so I have no finishing photo!
This race is hard. It challenges you in so many ways, and there is nothing like it.
The first three climbs are in your face. The camaraderie between racers (people thanked me for spending trail time with them!) and the volunteers who will get you to the finish is incredible.
As I’ve experienced, if you don’t eat, things can go very wrong! But if you do eat and you play your cards right, you get stronger every day. I have no words to describe how amazing it feels when you’ve been out there for four days and you’ve had about six to eight hours sleep and you think, “Man, I feel really strong right now.”
It’s the most incredible feeling I’ve had, and I’m grateful to have had this experience twice.
Thanks to Kintec for most of the gear that helped get me through the race; my feet survived amazingly! My favorite piece of gear was my Norvan jacket that kept me dry and warm in the horrific weather.
Thanks to my training partners who made training an adventure, and thanks to everyone who put up with me while I was training, working and trying to renovate!
Gear I Used
- Hoka Challenger, Speedgoats
- Smartwool/Icebreaker Merino T-shirts & long sleeve shirts
- Arcteryx Norvan jacket
- Rab Pertex shield pants
- Drymax socks
- Salomon S-lab Peak 22 pack
- Black Diamond Carbon Flicklock poles
Kintec Race Team
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