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Tor Des Geants, Part 2

Tappa 3 – Cogne to Donnas

46km – ~4600ft up and ~8500ft down) – 11:26h (excluding stops at live bases, including sleep)

I spent about 2 hours in Cogne, getting a good meal, enjoying Jill’s company (and a backrub, Jill is the most awesomest, my shoulders were hurting already) and starting to tape some hotspots at my feet. The rain in the first night had taken some toll, and I had some developing blisters under my toes already … Normally I just lube relatively generously with Hydropel and let things take their way and that works fine, particularly when wet, but by some rather twisted train of thoughts I figured that it might interfere with tape application later – so I only started applying Hydropel late, and then only sparingly. Why a supposedly grown man who has already found something that works comes up with such nonsense is unclear to me now.

Leaving Cogne ... it sure looks nice here!

The next section looks to be by far the easiest on paper, fairly gradual and just a straightforward climb up and a looooooong descent down (which other race you know has an almost uninterrupted 8500 ft descent?). I left Cogne at about 4:30pm – about 1:10 earlier than last year – so much of this section happened at night. Since I had little problems with sleepiness the first night I figured I might reach my (soft) goal of 200km before sleeping at all. Honestly I don’t remember all that much though I believe tiredness hit me unexpectedly hard and after a lot of pondering I came to the conclusion that an hour of sleep in this night would be advantageous – last year I tried to sleep in the day at Donnas which was mostly a waste of time. I probably slept for an hour at a refugio with no issues (all my refugio sleeps were blissfully perfect – lie down, set alarm, get woken up by alarm). What I do remember though that while last year the tiredness was severe, it also carried a significant fun factor – I had weird conversations with myself, thought I was my dad and talked to me, thought I was in California on the Ohlone course (which, to be honest, doesn’t look even remotely like the terrain we were in). This year, it seemed comparatively bland and just sort of bogged me down – all the unpleasantness and none of the fun.

It must be hard to live here. Not.

I reached the pass in the night and started my descent, which, not surprisingly, went on endlessly. The terrain was not terribly technical at first though I remembered some unpleasant stuff later on from last year, though it had been raining in 2010 which made things a lot different. Last year, I met Daniel Probst on the downhill and we both had some epic struggle with tiredness – I even hallucinated a japanese team of fishermen lowering a fishing boat to the – well – mountain road. Go figure. This year I did hook up with another runner who did not really speak english but had a failing light due to some missing batteries, so we ran together until we hit some easier terrain. With increasingly painful feet I also found out a somewhat unexpected aspect of the repeat performance – the higher sections of the downhill seemed significantly shorter than I remembered, only to realize later on that I totally forgot about some very long remaining stretches.

Those are not terribly fun to run on. At least it wasn't wet this year.

The downhill was very misleading with the trail weaving in and out of towns, one would come out on a road, through a town and then basically through someone’s yard back onto more trail and more descent, and so on. I think I also mistook the Chardonnay aid station for the Pontbotset one, which sadly was another 10km and 2200 feet of descending, needless to say that didn’t help my mood. Finally I hit the same road I remember walking down with Daniel at the bottom of which we met my dad last year. I had told Jill not to come because I would hit the live base in the early morning, so I did not have that to look forward to. The chatter with my dad also had wiped the fact that once at the bottom we had to cross numerous towns that were not Donnas until we finally walked over an ancient roman road (seriously how could romans walk on that stuff. It’s worse than a bad trail!) into Donnas and reached the base! On the positive side though I reached donnas almost 2 hours earlier than the previous year, though with feet that were in significantly worse shape!

At the aid station I found Stevie Haston, the crazy, famous and funny british pro climber I spent almost a whole tappa with last year. He had given me some good advice regarding Jill back then (aka to ask her out) but he unfortunately had dropped this year due to some leg issues. He had gone out with a 95 hour time goal – that’s about 35 hours less than last year (“I trained a whole year for this” he told me) and had injured himself, but he had no remorse. It’s always inspiring and humbling to see how real top-level athletes work, and what they are capable of (even if he injured himself here he had gone out with impressive speed). I even met his awesome wife who applied some of her extreme strength sunscreen to my crisply burnt arms (the previous day had been very sunny and hot, and I was quite sunburnt to a level that worried me – I felt sort of feverish) and I took my time chatting with Stevie before I had the medics apply a lot of tape to my feet. I had developed some bisters on my heels and various blisters under my toes and even on top, and my metatarsals were painfully tender. Then Stevie told me to get the hell out while it was still early to avoid the heat, and eventually I left.

Tappa 4 – Donnas to Gressoney

53km – ~15100ft climbing – 24 hours excluding stops at either live base

Last year, I had run early on with some local Italian who told me that this is the hard section. “The trail is not good”. The profile really didn’t look too intimidating – but indeed, it was the most brutal section – though if you’d have asked me, I couldn’t really remember exactly what it was that was so bad! Fortunately, the TDG was kind enough to remind me.

We're not in Kansas anymore! Oh, and I'm #1!!!!

I left Donnas through town and soon veered off through vineyards toward the first climb, which felt strange because in my memory I remembered the next climb as the first. This first section was steep but not too bad, rolling and traversing until we descended again to the first aid station. I struck up some conversations with two fellow TDG finishers from last year – one of them had finished in 9th position under 100 hours – he told me he felt very weak and off since the first aid station. However, he was motoring on despite being far off, without complaints – I was deeply impressed. He was a really sympathetic guy as well. He later came back and finished in 53rd position in 116 hours … Anyways, the only real challenge about this section was the increasing heat, though last year I did this close to noon where it was much hotter.


The real fun started after Perloz. I was on the increasingly steep long ascent I remembered doing with Daniel last year, when we pondered how much tougher alpine folks were than us. The ascent was partially on connecting trails and old roads between villages and in parts was ridiculously steep for that purpose. The whole climb was 5400ft net over ~6 miles with increasing steepness – that could make anyone a little tired. Increasingly I realized why this was hard, as the terrain was more dominated by talus fields higher up (by talus I mean boulder fields with rock sizes ranging from babyheads to man-sized rocks and beyond), making the slow going even slower, and my feet started hurting a lot from the added friction of odd-angled rock surfaces. I was, however, looking forward to an espresso at the rifugio Coda and the amazing view of the plains since from there one could see out of the mountain range into the lowlands on one side, and into the mountain valley on the other – one of the most spectacular views I’ve ever seen. Sadly, this time some fog coming in from the lowlands prevented my photo documenting this. I enjoyed my espresso and some italian orange soda at the Rifugio and made my way to Lago Vargno. Interestingly, I was not able to pay for anything but the sodas at any of the rifugios – espresso and even ice cream was free. I took a long time fixing my very hurty feet, especially since a downhill section was ahead.

Yet another beautiful lake - unfortunately NOT Lago Vargno by a longshot ...

View from Colle Sella

The section to Lago Vargno is not really very clear in my mind anymore, a long downhill and rolling stuff, it sure was pretty and it was slowish going and my blisters hurt. At this point in the race at the very latest one realizes that those tiny bumps in the elevation profile are all still big climbs that are strenuous to say the least.

Magical. Painful, but magical.

Fun terrain. Um.

The reason I don’t have any pictures of Lago Vargno is that it’s probably the single least pretty place on the course. It’s basically a dam with an artificial lake and a bunch  of construction equipment. It looks more like a bit of a quarry than anything, and it’s not really terribly inviting. Last year I fittingly reached it in the dark and fog, which gave the place a really creepy quality … this year it was still light though, so I knew I was quite a bit ahead of schedule – always nice. At the aid station I tried some very funky sesame sticks that I had avoided until now, which turned out to be quite good – but not much else could tickle my fancy. The aid station food was a bit more sparse than last year and very uniform – except for a few stations where the locals added some of their specialties to the menu – often incredibly tasty treats!

Dima "Crankypants" Feinhaus. To be fair, with a busted nose, arm and lip I would probably be "whinypants", so he did pretty awesome ...

On the way up to col Marmontana, just around sunset, I came across a guy – Dima as it would turn out – sleeping face down at the side of the trail. “Are you ok?” I asked –  had learned earlier that it’s better to ask in english than in french, since while I could ask I couldn’t usually understand the answer, which made the gesture sort of awkward – at least this way they would try to reply in english if they could. To my surprise, I got an english answer – “yeah”. However, Dima started shivering uncontrollably and looked really terrible, with blueish lips. “Do you want to join me?” I asked – “yes!”. I waited while he got ready and we took off to get him warmed up. I was somewhat worried at first, but he came back. It turned out Dima had in the first night walked off the trail in a talus field and took a tumble that could easily have caused broken bones or worse – but miraculously he “only” got a busted nose (not broken though), bloody lip and a bruise on his arm. It immediately made my romantic “no-sleep haha tumble around” strategy look very unwise, and it reinforced my less exciting strategy to sleep when I was tired instead of trying to hold out as long as possible.


On the way up to the col we became friends which is really unavoidable in that situation and we had long discussions about topics ranging from politics to religion to relationships to why those goddamn rocks hurt so much and really another talus field? One passing competitor even admired our energy to discuss so loudly while climbing up to the col, though he might have been just polite and really meant to indicate we should be a bit more quiet. As it turned out Dima and I had many similar views, which was good because I didn’t feel like I would have had enough energy to push him off the mountain otherwise.

The other side of the col was where the real fun started. The whole section was extremely technical boulder fields and though relatively short, I doubt we made even a mile an hour progress at night. Two aid stations that were merely flown-in hard shelters provided some welcome refreshment, though it was difficult to get back out into the frustratingly slow and rather painful debris fields. I felt quite low until we hit the last col before the descent to Niel, where we would sleep a little. I had, however, totally forgotten just how awful that descent was – it was very technical crappy rock steps and mud and grass, very slippery due to the dew. I got increasingly frustrated as we descended, towards lights that were not our destination, then traversed endlessly though dark woods on terrain that was relentlessly unpleasant, short steep ups and downs, rolling sections. My feet were burning and everytime I hit a rock, stumbled or my poles got caught I started to curse until I finally lost it and just loudly yelled obscenities. Dima had fallen a little behind I think, but I cared little if he heard it, though I was somewhat embarrassed when I passed a person a little while later – I assumed she had come to look if anyone was in trouble. Fortunately (or maybe not) it turned out to be Dima’s girlfriend, and we were close to Niel.

We stopped at Niel for some sleep – I got a wonderful hour, while Dima seemed to be struck with bad luck that followed him througout the race – he was consistently interrupted by an irate french woman claiming they were sleeping in her room, despite the aid station personell telling her to just wait for a while. Anyways, feet were fixed, food was eaten plentifully – but in reality, we still has 20km left in this section. I now remembered exactly why, when I filmed myself last year, I said “Gressoney. Man, I thought I’d never get here.”. I thought exactly that.


The remaining 20km still took me between 5 and 6 hours. I left with Dima who, after a short while, decided he needed another little trailside nap and I moved on alone. The climb to the pass was uneventful though in addition to my busted feet I had developed a serious case of constipation and while I constantly felt like I should go, I just couldn’t – I hadn’t been able to for the whole race (which is ironic because I used to tend to the opposite). I made a honest effort on col Lasoney, the last pass in this section (if you try, at least do it in a beautiful high setting) but to no avail! I started to feel sort of low-grade ill and stuffed.

What are YOU looking at, huh? You wanna piece of me? A PIECE?

The descent from the pass was initially very pleasant and runnable through grassy fields and gradual though I faceplanted after getting caught in a hole in the increasingly technical grass field which was laced with holes and babyheads – that seriously dampened my mood again. Cursing and more careful I descended ways past little farmhouses and an aid station stop at Ober Loo (where last year I was almost forced to drink some red wine) until I met Jill on the trail.
That immediately lifted my spirits and we performed the final very steep descent together. I could not move very fast anymore due to increasing foot pain, and any ambition I had from my good timing had disappeared. I told Jill “I forgot just how hard this was. It’s just not fun. WHat the f* was I thinking signing up for this again? If I ever ever want to do this again, shoot me. As a matter of fact, I’m gonna tell Daniel (who I promised to do PTL with next year) to f* off in more polite terms.”. Bold statements. But really, I was super happy she had come to meet me. She’s the best.

Typical live base layout in Gressoney

Then we finally got to Gressoney. Man, I thought I’d never get there.

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