Tor des Geants – or how much can you experience in four days?
by Ake Fagereng
Over two months after a celebratory three course meal in Courmayeur (remember it well, I was hungry…), it’s still tricky to organise the memories of the Tor des Geants in my head (hence writing this has taken forever). Memories from long races tend to meld into one another, and when the race is a four and a half day, 339 km, continuum of mountain paths with about 30,000 m of vertical gain (and loss!) over Alpine passes, it’s particularly hard to remember what happened where and when.
Anyway, what happened first was to get to Italy; having just returned from ~ two months of work in Namibia, Malawi and South Africa meant there was little time for acclimatisation, but at least getting from Cardiff to Courmayeur is a fairly pain-free flight to Milan followed by a bus to the Aosta Valley. I knew Courmayeur from a New Year’s climbing trip with Ant Hall nearly two years ago; in September it’s similarly surrounded by the impressive Mont Blanc range, but different without lowland snow and a million skiers, with the town centre now alive with people looking ready to run a long way. Included in those runners were Linda Doke and Armand du Plessis, friends from Cape Town, their seconds Graham and Taryn, and Luc Steens, another adopted Capetonian who I’d heard of before but not met. Familiar faces, encouragement, and help with occasional unexpected problems along the trail is invaluable, so it was brilliant to have these guys around.
The day before the start goes quickly: organise kit, have gelato, queue for gear check and start number, organise kit again, eat pasta, go to briefing, sleep. Like COACH Dion said in a pre-race message: Sleep well, it’ll be a while until next time! Another important task is to pack the yellow bag: Each runner gets a yellow togbag, which gets transported between “life-bases” approximately 50 km apart, dividing the race into seven sections between which one can change clothes/shoes, eat from a selection of great Italian food (no chance for a low-carb diet), restock on nougat and sourworms, and other important things. Doing this race for the first time I learned some lessons on what should be in the yellow bag, but in essence I filled it with extra warm clothes just in case, lots of socks, spare shoes (x2), spare running tops, spare shorts, food (e.g. nougat, haribo party pack and sour worms (of course), nuts, parmesan chips courtesy of Andrew Espin, a few gels and bars), electrolytes (High5 zero/Rehydrate), and a bunch of little first aid things (mostly tape and plasters). Anyway, you pack your race pack with the compulsory stuff (including crampons), hope you didn’t forget to put something crucial in the yellow bag, hand in the yellow bag, line up and get ready to go!
The race starts at 10 am on a Sunday. Very civilised time, but very nice to get a last good sleep and a decent breakfast. Like all races, the gun goes, adrenalin takes over and the pace is definitely a bit fast, especially for a 330+ km race. After a lap of town the pace settles though, as the first 10k is a climb to Col Arp at 2,571 m, setting the standard for the first 10k out of just about every main town. I got into what I thought was a steady pace, but lots came past, some sprinting!
The first day was beautifully sunny, with brilliant views of Mont Blanc. Felt great over Col Arp and down to the village of La Thuile; running through crowds I can only compare to the support at Comrades – although braai and beer is swapped for wine and cheese in the gardens/picnics we run past. This race had the biggest highs and lows in any race I’ve done, often 20 minutes apart. The first low hit after La Thuile, climbing up to Passo Alto at 2,800 m; paying the price for too little acclimatisation I could feel the typical nausea that comes with exercise at altitude. Linda Doke came by looking strong, and some seasoned ‘Trailers’ had a chat and reminded me it’s a long way, ‘Tranquilo’, take it easy, it will get better, “this is not Transgrancanaria, nor UTMB, this, THIS, is the Tor des Geants”. So, one foot in front of the other, easy does it, long way to go. Before the third of the three 1000 m+ climbs in the first section, Armand caught up too, and we ran together down toward the first lifebase, enjoying the long rocky downhill trails (for now…).
First lifebase, also the start of the first night: feeling the nausea so forced down some soup, taped some hot spots on a couple of toes, had a 20 minute lie-down to get the stomach to settle (worked! yay!), then off we go again. The route to Cogne is 56 km over three passes, with some really steep bits. Getting into a rhythm now: steady up the hills, really using the trekking poles to take some weight off the feet (my shoulders stayed sore for a month… to little skiing lately!), then easy jog down, not breaking too much but also not putting too much force on the quads, tricky balance. Second of the downhills; super-steep, loose rocks, really quite tricky, never mind that it’s 4 am in the morning, dark, sleepy, keep thinking I should put my poles away before I snap one when slipping and sliding. Too late for that as a pole gets stuck between two rocks as I slide and fall – poles are a lot less efficient with 90 degree bends in them… I bend it back a bit, but can’t put weight on it. Shit. Ok, 260 km to go, 20,000 m of climb left, one pole. Not good. Anyway, not much to do at this point, so keep going down the hill, catching Linda as the sun comes up and we’re getting in to the village of Eaux Rousses, marking the start of the climb to Col Loson, at 3,299 m the highest point on the Tor.
Good news! Graham is in Eaux Rousses and says the magic words ‘leave it with me’ when I show him the pole problem. Really feeling it’s been a while since a decent sleep, so grab 30 minutes before the hill. Then off again, at some stage teaming up with a guy from Milan who conveniently knows this section, speaks some English, and we steadily slog up the hill, passing some others, still a bit nauseous, but much better than the day before, again it’s a sunny day, and the daylight is invigorating after the long night. Over the top and down we go; the downhill to Cogne may be the fastest section of the whole race, runnable, nice gradient, down, down, and down. Except for an unexpected and rather unwelcome few km slog along the road from the trailhead to Cogne!
Great news again! Entering the Cogne lifebase I find Graham with new trekking poles, thank you Graham and thank you Cogne for having some open sport shops! Right, back in business! Still light, so no need to mess around, and the next section looks easy, just a long gradual 1,000 m climb, then a long downhill. The race is changing character quickly, until Cogne there was pretty much always another runner or ten in sight, leaving Cogne I’m on my own, and this becomes more typical from here in. It took me a couple of weeks to remember this section, not sure why as it’s a nice long trail section through the forest, lots of tourists on afternoon strolls, and then a last steep push up to some Alpine terrain. Very runnable on top, and with a plan to catch an hour sleep (luxury!) in Rifugio Dondena I had incentive to jog along the track, get in the hut and go to sleep. Woken up with a smile and an espresso from the hut warden, the hour of sleep went far too fast, but at least it was still runnable for the trot off the mountain and back to the forest. Down to Donnas looks like a nice downhill on the profile; but… it’s a bit like the Table Mountain contour path, there are some steep climbs, and the ground is bouldery, needing full concentration, not too easy in the dark when feeling the sleep deprivation coming on again. Anyway, after a very long 18 km (close on 4 hours at fairly high intensity), Donnas appeared, cobbled streets and all:
Feeling perky and over-confident I made Donnas a quick stop; some pasta, parmesan, broth (getting into a routine), COFFEE, and out into the night. Ok, Donnas to Gressonay, let’s make this point now, this is the hardest section of this race, hands-down. To make matters worse, it looks easy on the profile; high point by Coda at about 2,200, and the rest looks undulating. It looks undulating on a 339 km long profile, which neglects to show all the 500m-ish climbs that add up to about 4,000 – then there is the > 2,000 m climb to Coda, because Donnas is at 300, and the route up to Coda has a few downhills in it, particularly one with a 500m-ish drop. On top of that, sleep-deprived me was confused in minutes from all the up and down and around and about through little villages, wondering if I’d lost my direction and was going around in circles seeing the same yellow flags over and over… anyway, eventually got out of the towns and onto the trail to Rifugio Coda, having fallen asleep while walking along the road, and walked into a ditch, twice.
Coda is properly onto the mountain, and with the sun up this was really beautiful territory. Feeling decidedly worse for wear a drastic move was needed – another hour of sleep! So, into Rifugio Coda, into bed, then woken up by a warden what felt like immediately afterwards. Well, at least there was some food, and COFFEE, then off again. And off onto maybe the best trail section of the race – I’d love to go do this on fresh legs and awake, not that it wasn’t spectacular anyway. True mountain trails, over a number of passes, round some lakes, via another hut (with fantastic supporters), all day passing from the slow going on the technical tracks, and hitting the downhill to Niel just before sunset, and mistakingly thinking I could quickly get down before dark. I may be biased, but this is possibly the trickiest, slowest, downhill section I’ve ever done. Col della Vecchia (incredible spot, brilliant volunteers in their little tents, and they had COFFEE!) to Niel must have been well under 10 km and took nearly two hours. Downhill. Ok, with a lot of little climbs out of gullies. Madness. Hugely happy to see the checkpoint at Niel – quick feed on broth, and up the hill to get this section over with. Number of ups and downs here: solid going up the hill to the first false summit, then another, and another, does this ever end??? Ok, one more summit, no, not yet, lights! yay, must be checkpoint, no… just another runner, big cairn! yay!, ok downhill now, quads hurting, need anti-chafe (don’t ask questions you don’t want the answer to), quads really hurting, music! checkpoint, COFFEE, CHEESE, ok, keep going, why did I forget anti-chafe!!??!!, damn quads, lights! road! life-base!
Gressonay life-base: more need for drastic measures, quick shower to get rid of sand (chafe problems, pre-blister fixes), FOOD! Armand was around, and Taryn, they had anti-chafe! Life-savers… and nice to catch up with some familiar, friendly faces. Have established a strategy, so after some pasta and fruit (fresh stuff!), it was time to head back out, planning to catch some sleep at Alpenzu, a refuge up the hill just out of Gressonay. Hitting a really weird, surreal, state of Deja Vu I could have sworn having walked the hill out of town and up to Alpenzu before, all feeling familiar but knowing I’d never been there. This kept happening, anyone know if there’s a connection between sleep deprivation and deja vu??? Anyway, got to the hut quickly, pushing hard knowing I could get some sleep. Feeling worse for wear I opted for a two-hour snooze – bad idea – too long, and woke up feeling more tired than when I went to bed. Oh well, COFFEE, then off again, up the hill, under the most amazing moon – then sunrise, bright and stunning views over the mountains ahead.
Down from the pass after Alpenzu, down the slopes to the skiing village of Champoluc where the checkpoint was in a refuge – an amazing one that had just put out their breakfast spread for us. I have never been as excited about cocopops… sometimes you don’t know what you want before you see it, but a couple of bowls later I felt invigorated and good to go, down the hill to go back up the other side. The valley was surreal, a sleep deprived early morning is not the time for lots of wooden, life-size, animals playing musical instruments in the park. At least Armand described them too, so it can’t have been entirely down to my imagination. From the park with the animals though, it was a stunning, sunny day over the mountain to Valtournenche, through grassy slopes and nice trails, with another refuel of pasta at Rifugio Grand Tourmalin, stunning spot again.
Into the next life base (Valtournenche), still sunny, and lots of friendly faces: Linda and Graham were there, sorry to hear Linda is out, but get treated amazingly by these guys, refueled including pizza from the Icelandic crew!
Very full and happy, off again, up the hill, to probably my favourite of the seven 50k-ish sections between lifebases, despite the weather that was now about to hit. Anyway, the rest of the day went quickly, up onto the mountain again, via another Refugio, and onto a section of high Alps, undulating, wild, barren. As the sun went down the weather came in, and slowly but surely the clear night while going down to Rifugio Magia changed to atmospheric, wild conditions with horizontal rain on the way to Rifugio Cuney and the Bivouac Clermont. Had thoughts of sleeping it out at Cuney, but we had a nice little group, even if noone spoke a language I understood, and it was better to just fight it out. Wild but controlled, we made it to the Bivouac, a tiny little shelter with some really enthusiastic volunteers, who fed us with soup and COFFEE to warm up (I was wearing all the compulsory kit except the crampons at this stage), and then off we went and over col Vessonaz. Then, immediately after crossing the col, the weather was calm, completely, with a clear sky. Jogging down the hill towards Oyace I noticed the fatigue of fighting through the night, slipped, fell asleep for a couple of minutes, then kept going. I was weirdly confused navigating down the hill, another bizarre moment of deja vu being sure I’d been there before, wondering if it was maybe on the way up? Had I somehow gone the wrong way? A couple others caught up also unsure of the way but with a gps out, gps says we’re fine, so we keep going. I feel good, so now convinced I’m imagining things, I speed up in the hope I actually am on the right way. Finally, a trail sign! Oyace, 1 hour it says – brilliant, on the right way, run on and soon I’ll be there🙂
Oyace, in the middle of the night, was a quiet village with a hall of volunteers and seconds, and a few sleepy runners, waiting for things to happen. I learn from Taryn that I’ve overtaken Armand without noticing – he must have been asleep in a Refugio (or the bivouac, as I learn later). Again, eat, drink, Armand wanders in as I’m ready to go, I say hi but now focused on getting moving (if not I will fall asleep) I don’t chat much – feel bad about that later, but at the time, it was the time to go into the night while feeling fed and energised!
Oyace to Ollomont is a short, 12 km-ish stretch to the lifebase, where there were dry clothes (yay), but it’s not an easy stretch! Gradual forest tracks go on and on, and just when I thought I’d be on the top, I find a little hut with volunteers, have some COFFEE, and get the update that there is still some climbing, in the pouring rain, before the technical trail over the col to the next checkpoint, only then is it downhill to the final lifebase. Ok, right, up the hill. This stretch is very vague in my head. I remember slipping and sliding, trying to move fast. I remember having some hallucination of being in a race in Norway, other moments of thinking I was on some detour of the race with some extra hill, in summary, nothing made much sense, but I could see the next checkpoint and aimed for it, despite complete confusion in my head about why I was doing it and where I was. Anyway, the checkpoint was a little perspex thing a few metres by a few metres in area, occupied by two volunteers and a mocca pot. So I had a quick COFFEE, cleared my head, realised it was a few km of steep downhill trail and then easy forest tracks to the lifebase. Right, off we go, got chased down by some speedy Frenchman, but then kept up and passed him again on the easier trails (when did I get slow on the technical bits? ok, blaming it on being sleepy, it’s my excuse and I’m sticking with it).
I got into Ollomont, final lifebase, 50 km to go, absolutely drenched. Anyway, yellow bag, change everything to dry stuff, then food and off again, usual strategy of powernap in the next refugio. Getting slow now, so the changeover and food stop took well over an hour, unnecessary, but operating on very slow motion and lack of concentration. Also made the mistake of changing back to shoes I used earlier, rather than the larger ones I’d been using in the latter parts of the race to compensate for swollen feet (swollen from body being vertical for three + days in a row, not from any injuries). Not a good call, not worth it for dry shoes (which anyway didn’t stay dry for long). Also changed into too tight socks, not good with drenched feet. Anyway, despite feet problems to come, at this stage all was good, and sleepy me headed off to the Refugio Champillon – as the rain cleared and the Alps regained their sunny atmosphere. Into the refugio, volunteers straight to work getting my bag of wet compulsory stuff onto a drying rack, and I get my half-hour powernap. As ususal, the wake-up call comes far too soon, but some COFFEE, accompanied by: ‘Italiano? France? Espanol?… NORUEGO??!!! Ah, primero!” some thumbs up and some cross-country skiing impersonations, and a great send-off from a very enthusiastic group of volunteers, and apparently there aren’t many Norwegians in this race.
I’d noticed I was now close to the top 50, so I got a bit over-enthusiastic and tried to catch up. Pushed up the hill, over Col Champillon, and down to the valley, quick pasta at the checkpoint on the bottom, where I’d caught a few others (including the speedy Frenchman from Ollemont), and off onto the only 10 km+ flat section of the race. Right, so I hit this with a Swiss runner I’d kept meeting, very nice guy, we’d had some nice chats to keep each other awake, and kept leap-frogging through differing sleep strategy. Now, 11 km of slightly downhill, runnable forest track is normally a straight-forward thing, easy jog, max an hour. Swiss guy did just that, I think. I got a new appreciation for the Les Croupiers Couch to 5 km group. Having run from I was a kid, running 5 km (or 10 km) without stopping hasn’t really seemed like a problem in times I can remember. It did now. Getting to 6 min/km was hard, keeping it up for more than a few hundred metres at the time a serious effort. Anyway, through running for up to a km at the time, then walking for a bit, I got through the 11 km in something like an hour and a half, and into the town of Saint-Rhemy En-Bosses. Got in, quick hi to the Icelandic crew, and off up the last hill. Now, this took forever, up through rolling hills, lots of cows (some with the yellow course marking flags in their mouths), and Rifugio Frassati in the distance that just didn’t come closer. Anyway, eventually get in as the sun goes down, pasta, then out in what is quickly turning windy and cloudy. Now, despite horizontal rain earlier, the wind and low cloud up this last pass, Col Malatra, was the scariest part of the race, to me anyway. Noone else in sight (lost sight of the Chinese girl’s light, fifth(?) woman in the race, as we entered the clouds), and visibility just enough to see from one flag to the next. Oh dear, what happens if it gets worse… can still see next flag, sort of making out the track, steep now, scramble, can’t see the next flag, shit, wait… rope! yay rope! Follow rope… emergency kit, col, clear! Another surreal experience, possibly the most amazing vista of the race, as crossing Col de Malatra the sky goes from a few meters visibility to clear, moonlight sky, with stripes of snow lighting up like a silver-lining on the peaks around. Woken and alive in the shear size of the nightsky and the surrounding Alps, the jog down to the penultimate checkpoint goes fast, despite really starting to feel the toll taken by the beaten quads. Into another perspex box, COFFEE, cleared to go on by volunteers clearly worried about the state of the runners coming through, off on what’s meant to be the home stretch, only a couple of hours they say. RIGHT….
So, despite calling Donnas to Gressonay the hardest section, the hardest few hours were this last bit, the never-ending trail to Courmayeur. The ground was sandy, the trails anastomosing, down a dry, wide, gravel riverbed.
What I said about shoes and socks… yeah, until here my feet were perfectly fine, only in the last 15 km did I have any trouble, but tight shoes, wet not-so-breathable socks, really wore the feet down fast. On top of that, quads had now really had enough of downhills. One quad was fine, the other agony at each downhill step, clearly favoured ever so slightly for the last four days, and now more tired. Anyway, one step after the other, two hours along a two hour section, I get to the sign that says it’s two hours to the last checkpoint at Rifugio Bertone. Really… Yes, really, it seems, as an hour later, the sign says an hour to go, and me and the voices in my head agree that this is really going too slowly, running most of the time, but not fast enough to beat the time estimates for a family of four on a Sunday outing. Picking it up, running as hard as I can, stumbling over tree routes in the forest above Courmayeur, quads getting sorer with each step and each kick into a root, I still can’t break these estimates, finally getting into Bertone an hour later. Anyway, that’s it, all downhill from here, quick espresso, onto the trail, to hell with the quads and off to make the most of gravity. This would, actually, be a nice downhill run under most conditions, but at midnight, after running for four and a half days, and with aching quads from about 30,000 m of total decent, this admittedly wasn’t a whole lot of fun. The voices in my head agreed. Still, there was something to say for the feeling of getting out of the forest, onto the road, and into the town of Courmayeur, somewhat surreal in the quiet of the night. Pouring rain again, dark, silent streets, then finish line, British guys with cameras, Taryn with a camera, cross the line, into arms of volunteers who get my timing chip, get to sign the finish poster, then that’s it, only thought is sleep – although Taryn tells me I was talking about food (I blame the voices in my head).
It was amazing how I went from running across the finish, and for the last 10 km + of the race, to hardly capable of walking. Fortunately, Taryn was not only a friendly face but also a friendly lift who drove me to the sport centre, where the organisers have a lot of beds for newly arrived finishers to sort themselves out before going back to the real world. Some food turned up, biscuits, chocolate, bananas (thanks Taryn!), I had a quick shower to not wake up feeling too horrible, and then off to sleep, waking up 12 hours later, feeling like I just went to bed.
It took a day to become human, first day after finishing I woke up with quads so tight I could hardly bend my knees. The race physios had a look, said ‘ah, normale… you ok!’ and proceeded to spend an hour or more making my quads hurt, occasionally shouting ‘pain??’ over the music, getting some number between one and ten, then keeping on going. That experienced finished with me able to walk again, so I thanked them profusely, no pain no gain I guess.
I unfortunately had little time to bask in the pleasantness of the Aosta valley, needing to get back to the UK for the start of university term, but a few gelatos and pizzas later I was at least marginally alive when boarding the bus back to Milan. A huge thank you to the friendly familiar faces of my South African friends – I can’t describe the difference it made at both high and low points, same to the runners whose paths crossed mine, and also to the people of the Aosta valley for the most spectacular of running events, made so by the warmth of the welcome in every village, every rifugio, and every corner of Courmayeur. I hope to be back.