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Tor des Geants, Part 3

Tappa 5 – Gressoney to Valtournenche

36k – 9000ft – 15:12 without stopped time at either live base

Despite being halfway done, I was uncertain about the race. I was almost 2.5 hours ahead of last year’s pace, but my feet were in rather bad shape. The medics had taped a few toes and I had taped all the rest, but running was certainly no fun. The coming section was short but had some very steep sections. Last year my knee issues really got bad on this section, and I had some real problems coming down the mountain.

Dima had caught up with me again and we decided to leave together. I knew the initial stretch out of Gressoney was flat for a few kilometers, and I was very happy to have Jill join us. To my dismay my camera had stopped working (despite showing a full battery it emptied quickly for some reason) so I only have very few camera photos from this stage. Of course, after about a kilometer I had to stop to yet again work on my toes. I had a hard time finding anything that really worked, and I kept putting tape on and off. At this point, any time goal had lost meaning, though I was still a bit nervous that Harry and Steve would catch up with me, but even so – I pondered yet again if I was going to be able to finish this.

The backside of col Pinter was a bit steep.

The climb to Alpenzu was not as much of a shock as last year – basically you go from flat road to damn steep trail right up to a 1300ft climb over a 1 1/4 mile or so, a rude awakening. Dima decided he had to take another nap (if he hadn’t slept so much, he’d beaten me by probably 4 hours …) and just laid down at the side of the trail – an enviable capability for rest which I was not able to muster. Jill and I kept going up in the rising heat of the day until we hit Alpenzu, a little sparsely stocked aid station. The folks were super nice and offered Jill food and drink although she insisted she wasn’t part of the race – something that I’ve seen at many aid stations, also for other crew people – generally the volunteers and rifugio people were extremely supportive and nice. Sadly they didn’t have any ice cream (and more sadly europeans don’t see any need for ice either, so we got to drink luke warm cola all day – though the countless fountains had crystal clear ice cold mountain water to make up for it).

After Alpenzu Jill and I decided it’d be proper for us to split ways though it was so enjoyable to have her with me and we agreed she would look for some trail to explore the area. I continued the long way toward col Pinter which stood almost 5000ft above Gressoney. The ascent was relentless and fairly steep, and about 1000ft below the col I had to stop yet again to fiddle with my feet. A little ways back I saw Jill’s limey green cap, she had decided to make her way up to Pinter as well, and a few minutes later she had caught up with me. I let her go ahead and she waited for a minute at the col, where she took my picture. In good tradition I had brought a rock from col Loson for her, which I handed to her. She decided to take another trail which would lead her to Testa Grigia on a rather dicey climb.

View into the valley behind col Pinter.

The descent from Pinter was one of the more rugged ones in the race and I was a bit bummed I couldn’t show Jill. Soon though the trail tapered off and rolled after what seemed like an eternity of running through tiny apparently deserted mountain villages into a checkpoint just before the main checkpoint of Crest. It was very hot, and to my delight they had a sign for ice cream, so I asked if I could buy some, and I ordered an Orange soda as well. The proprietor led me to a chest of ice cream and when I tried to pull out my wallet he refused – he even let me take two – an ice cream bar and a cola popsicle – maybe the best dessert I’ve ever had in my life. Refreshed I made my way on to the rif. Crest – along the way I had to stop yet again to work on my feet – while usually blisters stop hurting after a while the pain had become very annoying and it took a lot of mental effort to try to ignore it to the level that I wondered if there was some other damage to my toes.

At the rif. Crest I was treated to a free espresso and I started my descent to St. Jacques with some reservation. Last year this was when my knee got really bad and it had taken me unexpectedly long to get down – I remembered an endless very steep trail, followed by extremely steep roads mixed with the extreme frustration of not being able to move well. This time the descent felt somewhat shorter, however I had to stop yet again for foot management halfways down – it was getting quite ridiculous now.  I kept leapfrogging with other racers who kept asking me if I was ok, looking at me with mild sympathy, as much as they could muster on top of their own misery.

I took a long break at St. Jacques – again working on my feet, this time not asking for medics to help. My mood had distinctly darkened as I felt myself slowing down and feeling down, all the while I never really felt athletically too challenged on the downhills.

I was looking forward to sleeping at the next rifugio, Grand Tournalin, where I had my best sleep last year. The climb to the rifugio was only 2400ft over about 3.1 miles – still at this point it would take me probably 1.5 to 2 hours to get there. It got dark just when I passed next to a small creek – last year I hit this section deep at night in an almost unconscious state, barely able to stay on the trail, faintly worried about falling into wat sounded like a dangerous river. It surely didn’t look all that bad now, and the climb went by a lot faster than last year. The rifugio was very welcoming, and I slept for just under an hour at the perfect time to refresh myself for the night. Just as I was about to leave Dima came in, looking tired and grumpy. I unsuccessfully tried to go to the bathroom (still no luck!) and made my way into the cold. The climb to col Nana was easy at first but involved some scrambling later on. I loved being on this high pass at night, and thought I would celebrate by finally reliving myself, but I still could not book any success. It was really starting to bother me now …

I don’t remember much of the 4000ft descent but it must have been slow since Dima arrived at the next live base almost an hour before me – he must have passed me during my off-trail outdoor escapades (he ended up leaving there an hour after me though). I reached Valtournenche at around 1am, and have little recollection of how I got there, but it must have been pretty painful since I wasn’t in a good mood. However, Jill was sleeping in our car on the parking lot right before the checkpoint and I was enthusiastic that she was there! She gave me a nice backrub again (by now my shoulders were very tender, especially my left shoulder which had been acting up in previous races – often I would just drop my left shoulder strap and carry my pack on the right shoulder alone …). While I fixed my feet and replenished on food (though my stomach now felt odd and I didn’t really have a great appetite) my german buddies showed up – Uwe, a very strong runner I ran with earlier at the Tour des Oisans and who I knew would handily beat me, as well as his friend Thomas who I had run with in the first stage. They had slept for a number of hours each night and were by now a lot faster and a lot fresher than me. Thomas in particular was outright chipper, much to my dismay – now I was the grumpypants. To be honest I was almost angered that he seemed to do so well while I was in so much misery and I think I even snapped at him, in hindsight a very embarrassing moment.

Tappa 6 – Valtournenche to Ollomont

44km – 11200ft climbing – 19:18h excluding time at either live base

I knew that the next tappa would be difficult. Last year I had hooked up with Stevie Haston and we had spent maybe the most pleasurable and at the same time the most unpleasant time in the race – pleasurable since Stevie is a lot of fun to talk to, and unpleasant due to some exposed traverses and difficult technical terrain, including an almost 5000ft descent that went steeeep … oh ok it’s not so bad … steeeep and two of the steepest cols in the whole race.

From Valtournenche the trail seemed to drop further down into the underbelly of the town along roads into a canyon. Then suddenly the trail started off the road between some houses, like in many places in this area – in a strange way the trails seem to be more an organic part of the town and villages than in the US, and vice versa – part of the charm of the (real) Alps. Soon after I started climbing I finally felt I urgently needed to go to the bathroom – however I was still close to civilization and had to hold out. After a while I was finally able to go. The whole affair still left me feeling rather funny now that my peristaltic system finally got back in the business, and instead of feeling like a light feathery grasshopper I had a tummy ache. Ah well … at least it distracted me temporarily from my foot misery.

Moonset on the way to fenetre d'Ersatz

After 2200 feet of climbing over about 2.5 miles I came to the bottom of a large dam which loomed probably more than a hundred feet into the air above me. The top of the dam was lit with street lights and the whole scene looked strangely like there should be spy prisoners be exchanged covertly any minute now. I wondered briefly if we went across the dam, but the path led underneath and then past it. While I was glad to be past the eerie scene I felt horribly tired and had again a very hard time moving steadily. At rif. Barmasse I decided I should sleep a little, and I took another 50 minute nap. After the nap I was seriously refreshed, and started out toward the first pass, fenetre d’Ersatz. The course was very easy here along fire roads and reasonably easy trail. After that first pass the trail felt increasingly remote. Lots of rolling smaller hills made going less straightforward than usual in the Alps, where you either motor steeply up or drop solidly down.

And yet another beautiful sunrise.

The trails now became really remote in a large high valley with nothing in sight in any direction. I had to stop numerous times to adjust clothing and fix my feet yet again, replacing and removing my tape jobs. I also had surprisingly found that I really liked the Hi-Chew Japanese candies that I had brought as an afterthought – they turned out to be very tasty and preferable to my usual staple foods of gummi colas and honey stinger chews.


I finally got caught or caught up with racer number 97 – Carlo Favre, who I walked into the finish with last year. He is a local runner, and older guy, a strong and rugged alpenman. He spoke only italian and french and a tiny bit of english, so I tried my best to dust off my high school french and we spent many hours talking about the area, races and other simple things in my broken and barely understandable french. Carlo knew just about every aid station person on this stretch at least and kept on pointing out mountains and massivs – this section was again one of the most enjoyable ones in the race.

Lucky cows!

The remaining aid stations before Close were no longer full rifugios but only little mountain shelters, normally unmanned. Still there was a full assortment of beer, sodas and the usual race foods along with pasta and polenta that was cooked for the racers. Carlo had brought with him some special kind of ricotta cheese and ate it with just pasta (perfectly al dente of course!) and olive oil. He offered me some, mentioning ricotta was good for the quads, and to my surprise it was just about the best pasta I’ve ever had. The ricotta was specially spiced and very rich.

Beer, fresh pasta, ricotta - life is good!


We finally got into some rather rugged territory and weren’t really moving all that fast, though the incredible views of the many passes we crossed more than made up for it. The ascents and descents were shorter overall, but no less steep than anywhere else with some rather perilous looking sections. During one descent we were filmed from a helicopter and I bit my teeth and tried my best to look like I leisurely ran down a very steep and exposed section of the trail. Oh the things you do for the camera …

Part of the traverse I nervously anticipated ...


Carlo on the traverse just before we drop on sharp exposed switchbacks lower, the crux of this section.

The traverse was easier than I remembered, though Carlo’s steady movement helped settle me into a concentrated trot, hiking poles firmly gripped. The trail was easy except for a section where we dropped a few hundred feet in very tight and steep switchbacks above sheer vertical drops – steep enough that we had to skid and slip a few times. Overall though my confidence was significantly improved over last year, maybe finally all this mountain stuff is paying off. The reward for the traverse was a number of passes with simply sublime views and another mountain shelter aid station nestled inbetween.

Always fun to wonder exactly where you'll go next


View from col Chaleby


Last big col before Close!


Col Vessonaz - maybe the steepest descent of the whole race. I believe Steve injured himself here ...


More panorama - the pictures don't do it justice. You can see many of the major massifs from here.

The descent from col Vessonaz was extremely steep and Carlo and I skidded and glissaded down the extra steep scree field. Fortunately the scree was relatively fine so it didn’t feel dangerous, and we made excellent time. On the way down we met Karen, Dima’s girlfriend – she didn’t know exactly where Dima was and I was surprised he was behind me. “No idea where crankypants is” I told her which elicited a laugh. Carlo did not run any of the downhills but had a very fast walking pace, which kept me rather busy. One issue with fast walks though is that it can hurt your feet even more than running (or in different ways), and after about 3000 feet of dropping my feet were burning intensely in addition to my toes and various blisters screaming at me. All I could think of is to put my feet into the nearby creek and how incredibly good that would feel which made my pain all the worse, and I didn’t think it would have been a good idea (though I’m not so sure about that anymore). Suddenly Carlo stopped – he also had similar foot pain and needed some relief –  a very welcome break right before I would have simply let him go on. His shoes were old worn down road sneakers and I was again amazed at how tough some people were.

The final descent to Close was annoying since you kept dropping into a canyon long after you could see the level of the town, however it was by far not as bad as last year where my knee was killing me. To get to Close we had to climb a few hundred feet back up, and I was extremely glad that I could rest for a while.

My feet were pretty beaten up and were even filmed and photographed by some people documenting the race. I also found my wonder medic from last year who fixed up a few of my bandages but was already off duty. Carlo was in much better shape and went on without me, while I decided to take it easy and linger for a bit, since the next climb to col Brison was rugged and very steep.

View close to sunset from the climb to col de Brison.

The climb to the col involved more traversing and a crazy steep ascent, followed by a descent along an insanely steep mountainside. The year before I had done this in the night, and at the previous checkpoint people insisted I do not go alone (I also looked pretty bad then), and I sort of understand now why. I called Jill and she said she had just been at the col a little earlier and was going to wait at the rifugio halfway down the mountain. I was excited since we only planned on meeting in Ollomont, and happily I went down the 1900ft descent to that rifugio over the next 1.6 miles. My initial good mood however eroded quickly as my feet were in screaming pain and I kept getting more and more frustrated, every time I would hit my toe I started swearing and pounding my poles into the ground like a little child. Finally I saw the rifugio and found Jill and Martina there. Though happy to see them, I was steaming in anger. I messed with my feet yet again (if you’re bored reading the same old foot story by now you can probably imagine how tedious it was during the race …), barely ate anything, before Jill and I made our way to Ollomont along a very steep gravel road.

3700 feet down ... yay for switchbacks!

This road was where I hit the low point last year – I had to walk backwards and screamed in anger, pain and frustration because of my knee. This year it was easier – unpleasant but by far not as bad, though I almost lost it when I finally got the the pavement to see that those perverted alpine villages kept the steepest sections within the villages. “How the f* can people get up here in the winter!” I exclaimed. I was very grateful for Jill being with me and I felt bad at the same time that she had to witness my temper tantrums, but she was very sweet and supportive, though I am sure she was as happy as me when we finally got to Ollomont around 10:20pm.

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