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Tor Des Geants, Part 1

The Tor is certainly amongst the very hardest of footraces in the world – a 330 km, 24km elevation gain (yes that’s more than a half marathon vertical up, or 80000ft for the metrically challenged), 25 passes above 2000m, non-stop (though you can sleep at many aid stations) stint through the beautiful Italian Alps around the Aosta valley. It is epic and superlative in all ways – the organization makes any US race seem quaint (not to say that American volunteers are any less fantastic) – it’s hard to compete with 1400 volunteers and a cost of north of 300k euros … In fact, it’s so superlative I couldn’t put together a race report for my first running of this race – though the slight distraction of meeting Jill might have had something to do with it as well :). So this is a bit of a double report, heavy on pictures and hopefully not just the “it went uuuuuuuup, then it went doooooooooooown endlessly” which this report easily could degenerate into …

Both of the years running I went into the race somewhat injured – this time with some nagging achilles issues and, more worrysome, persistent and occasional pain under, on the side of and on the top of my left big toe – the same that made me DNF TRT pre-emptively so I could run TOE, where it bothered me for the first 50 miles but never enough for me to stop. The interesting thing about a race of this magnitude is though that it’s so long, and you go so slow, that often the issues you encounter are very different from your usual running injuries. At least that’s what I told myself to calm my mind …

The race itself is split into 7 major “tappe”, though they are not stages as the clock keeps ticking – instead at the end of each tappa is a large aid station (“live base”) with lots of space to sleep (generally field beds in a gym hall or tent) and a warm meal.

My strategy for this year, as for last, was to sleep as little as possible, only when absolutely needed. This was not intended for speed – though the winners usually only sleep 2 hours or so, I think for my skill level more sleep would be beneficial – but for maximum experience and immersion into the environment. Last year I learned in addition that the live bases were not good places to sleep – generally crowded and with tons of people coming and going – instead I planned on sleeping on one of the many refugios, which allow only for 2 hours of sleep at the max (I was planning on 1 hour increments anyways) and are usually quiet. The only downside is the refugios are usually at moderately high altitude (which does not provide for as much rest for t
he unacclimated), but since I don’t usually have altitude issues other than being somewhat slower I figured the better sleep was well worth it. Other than that I did not plan for much – staying ahead of my friends Harry and Steve would provide for some fun little motivation, but really I didn’t care about beating them – there was no telling how fast or slow they would be anyways.

Tappa 1 – Courmayeur to Valgrisenche

49km – ~13000ft climbing – 11:43

Line of crazy people going to Col Arp - the first pass.

The start was even more crowded than last year – of course, with 500 as opposed to 350 runners. I was happy Jill was there to send me off, and also that they did not play any AC/DC this year (“She shook me all night long” was playing in my head for 132 hours last year, and it got old after about 5 minutes …) – though a heavy dose of Katy Perry at the Guide’s Cafe (which happened to be the only place in town with free internet) had already set my musical background for the days to come … ugh. There were a lot of familiar faces, some competitiors from last year – we all had our finishing rank as our start number, and all numbers below 200 were reserved for one of the 75 finishers from the previous year that was crazy enough to come back – even the guy I walked into the finish with last year (Carlo Favre, a kind of a local legend and a true mountain man – who can easily hike circles around me …).

La Thuile, the first big aid station!

Despite the distance and the terrain, once the start signal came, we were off running – it’s hard to escape the energy of the field and resist the hundreds of cheering spectators with cowbells who are cheering us on. The first col is Col Arp – easing us into the race with a moderate 4300ft climb that starts out gradual and gets only really steep at the end (though gradual here is still around a 750ft/mile grade). After a while I lost Harry and Steve who went out very conservatively (smart), passed Angela Pierotti from last year (she would post some impressive improvement this year) and caught up with Anne VerHoef. Anne is a super-strong hiker, though the elevation caused her problems. She would later unfortunately drop out due to a flare-up of plantar fasciitis in Gressoney. During the descent to La Thuile I took it easy and though my foot kept aching a little otherwise things behaved well – phew.

Waterfall glory! The first of dozens ...

The next climb was along a gorgeous valley along an incredible waterfall – the first time where I started to feel bad last year on behalf of going out too quickly, which I avoided this year. The climb lead to an incredible second high valley with breathtaking scenery. I caught back up to Anne who had left before me from the previous aid station (I tend to be slow filling up) – usually she would catch up or pass me on the downs while I had more gas in the tank on the climbs.

Snow covered mountains!!!! Anne is pleased.

Passo Alto was the second col, and the first with a significantly steep descent – losing 2900 feet of elevation in less than 3 miles … just to go back and gain it all back on Col Crosatie. That col had a wickedly steep ascent though scree fields and later on though a path carved into granite, wild and alpine. Lots of steps and some ropes got us into the right mood for the adventure to come – though it has to be said in all but maybe snow conditions you wouldn’t really need the ropes. They protected against some real exposure, though the trail itself is generally very good – much better than in the TOE, where such passages would have been unprotected on much worse trails. On the 4400ft descent into the first live base I caught up with Doone Watson and her husband Tim – Doone was determined this time to finish (as she would).

Um, trail?

Col Crosatie - it's becoming more alpine - and also it's starting to rain!

To my delight, Jill was waiting for me at Valgrisenche, which I reached a bit past dark with Anne at 9:43pm – a whopping 11:43 hours for less than a 50k! Valgrisenche was a somewhat cramped affair this year due to the high volume of runners, and no crew was allowed within the checkpoint. At this point I was about 15 minutes behind my 2010 pace. Anne decided to sleep at this aid station but I was determined to push on after changing clothes and some pasta. I decided to go somewhat light after my experiences in TOE where wearing anything too heavy on the uphills would only lead to being drenched in sweat and freezing cold on the downs. Instead I would rely on gloves, mittens and hat for warmth if needed. Still, I had my puffy with me in case I had to stop moving anyways.

Oh so pretty. We passed a ton of little alpine lakes, too.

Tappa 2 – Valgrisenche to Cogne

54km – ~13700ft climbing – 16:30 (excluding stopped time at either live base)

The next stage was significant – it had the first scary downhill from Col Fenetre and three major passes – two above 3000m – including the highest one in the race, Col Loson, standing 10824ft tall. After a nice gradual climb of another 4000ft (it seems as if there are only 3000+ feet climbs in this race which is of course not the case – you just tend to not notice anything less than 1000 feet at all any more …) I reached Col Fenetre in the night with the same spectacular sight I remembered – the line of lights down the col made it seem like the descent was almost vertical, as if one was to look from an airplane down. The trail was good but very steep with very sharp switchbacks, some of which were above near-vertical talus fields – I was only glad it wasn’t wet! While I marched down the pass I wondered how I did this without using my poles last year and I also if I was the biggest chicken in the race with my aversion to heights – I doubted many people would consider this descent to be of any difficulty at all (except for the fact it was very steep of course). The thing was made harder by the fact that this whole fun section wasn’t just a few hundred feet of elevation high … you loose almost 3000 feet this way. Needless to say, the I reached the next aid station with some relief.

The first sunrise is always special ...

Shortly after this aid station I continued my climb up to our first 3000m pass, col Entrelor. I don’t recall really much of this ascent except it was very steep, and that I met the only Scottish competitor, Gary Morrison. He was having some issues with the altitude but was otherwise in generally good spirits (from the results I learned he later timed out just before the last pass). Definitely a sufficiently studly man being a deep sea diving instructor having done lots of diving in the arctic (brrr), I was rather pleased to learn that he too had some mental difficulties with the descent from col Fenetre with much the same thoughts as me (visions of contorted limbs over big boulders) … and he even used to be a bit of a climber! Feeling fully vindicated and invigorated after a good chat, I strongly pushed on. As my breathing got shallower and more rapid I remembered Harry mentioning resistance exhaling as a technique to stave off altitude sickness by increasing oxygen uptake and tried that out – and that worked wonders. My breathing rate dropped by half, and I felt much stronger and charged up the increasingly steep pass. I don’t remember much of the descent … it was fairly gradual but looong losing 4400ft in elevation. I reached Eaux Rousses almost one hour faster than last year, just at 7:30am.

Incredible valley before col Loson

I was glad to get an early start to the climb up to Col Loson, a 5400ft net elevation gain climb – gradual except for a fairly brutal finish. This section is one of my favorite in terms of sheer beauty – a wild alpine river in a remote high valley with gorgeous views of snow-covered massifs. I reveled in the beauty of it all and was sad that Jill couldn’t see this, as I made my way up to the col. With judicious application of the “P-ffffffff, P-ffffffff” technique I made it surprisingly easily up to the col (last year I almost keeled over and had to stop to catch my breath a lot).

Exposed descent to the beer shelter!

The other side was just as spectacular, and I started the descent along some exposed roped sections to the emergency biouvac located just about hundred feet below the col where to my delight the aid station folks had Cola, still and sparkling water and even beer waiting. I opted for a beer – a nice refreshing beverage after a day’s worth of coke – though I got handed the whole can instead of half as I wanted. I couldn’t really dare to waste half a beer that was somehow transported this far up in the mountains and thus drank the whole beer. Somehow relaxed and a little intoxicated I continued the descent (that reminded me a bit of the counter-clockwise descent from Grant Swamp Pass in Hardrock, just a lot longer and higher …) which was mostly easy despite having some very steep almost butt-slide sections through relatively fine and moderately harmless looking scree. I made good time and was able to run a fair bit.

View from the col. Hard to peel yourself away from that. Also because legs are very very heavy.

The descent followed another alpine river through a wonderful narrow valley until, to my delight, Jill came towards me. She had planned to hike to the col and was surprised to see me this early. She wanted to accompany me to Cogne, the second live base, and I felt a pang of guilt at denying her the beautiful experience of Col Loson, though I was thankful for the company. Further down we met Martina as well. I chatted merrily and probably fairly incoherently as we made our long way down to Cogne which included a fairly long road section through town.

We are almost in Cogne!

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