Tappa 7 – Ollomont to Courmayeur
49km – 9600ft climbing – 16:01
I decided to sleep a bit at Ollomont since I was seriously tired, my feet were hurting and I thought I would just finish the last tappa in one go. The sleeping arrangements were even worse than last year, with a huge tent that was drafty and cold with a giant noisy heated air pipe. I tried sleeping for a while in one of the beds but even with two blankets I was cold from the draft from below and only dozed a little, so I just sat a while in front of the heated air pipe trying to warm up. It was pretty miserable. I had the medics take one more look at my feet and they applied a few things and drained some blisters. Next to me a young doctor was working on another broken racer who had various painful looking issues. The doctor was at the end of his shift and shaking his head gently he suggested that we should enjoy this area like normal people, sort of hopeless like he was telling crazed drug addicts to lay off the crystal. He obviously thought this was neither reasonable nor healthy nor fun, and somehow I could not disagree with him. My legs had become swollen to almost comical proportions, and I could actually feel the swelling straining against tendons and tissue in a way that was a bit worrisome and affected my walking, sort of like something was gonna pop or I was gonna burst and emit a gush of water. Despite staying almost 4 hours in Ollomont I was not well rested when I started to conquer the final two passes at around 2am.
The climb to the first pass was relentlessly steep but on easy terrain – all the really hard stuff was now behind me. But though the trails even became dirt roads I was so incredibly tired that I kept veering off, almost walking off the trail. No amount of slapping myself, biting my lip or pinching myself could keep me awake, and my eyes literally closed while I was walking. Occasionally I suddenly seemed to wake up from microsleeps and strange dreams, disoriented and feeling detached from myself and reality. Still, there were no hallucinations to speak of during this race, just a leaden tiredness.
Once I got to rif. Champillon I realized I had to take another nap – only 35 minutes, but that nap made all the difference. I still took my time there, but once I left I felt much stronger. The col. Champillon was steep but tapered off and in a way anticlimactic, but the descent was technical, steep and, as you surely guessed, endless, traversing along a mountainside further and further into a valley, teasing you with views of farms and possible places where the next aid station might be. My feet were still getting worse and I was getting rather grouchy again.
Finally I hit the aid station, and the usual program was called for – refuel, drink some beer, tape my feet after making for each toe a decision about if it should not rather be cut off altogether. Narrowly I decided to keep them. The aid station was special in that we were served local smoked meats and specialties. Last year I indulged in the somewhat rawish meats which were really tasty but later made me feel sick (probably psychological, however as we all know that’s as good as real in an ultra at that stage). This time I stuck to cooked ham which was delicious.
The next section was a very easy very gradual very long trail down to St. Rhemy. To my surprise I was able to run a very fair amount of it, leaving the other runners I had leapfrogged with the same morning fairly far behind. Only towards the end I had to slow down on account of my screaming feet, and my bliss was all but gone by the time I reached the aid station. It was now hot, I felt like crap, but at least there was only one more pass to go!
In St. Rhemy Uwe finally overtook me as I had expected to happen much earlier, though Thomas would finish a little behind me. He invited me to join him for a while, but I kept messing with my feet. I knew the ascent to col Malatra was significant and in parts quite steep, but 3500ft – nothing, right? I mean, I had climbed 75000ft til here … My foot pain levels reached new heights as it felt like I was cutting into my left foot at each step, and my callous under my left big toe was burning so badly that I wanted to chop it off. One step I almost burst into tears, uncontrollably, and despite being so close to the finish the thought of even the last 25km made me feel a deep sense of desperation. I reached the rifugio before the col mentally and emotionally crushed and felt no urgency to move on. I took it easy, took my shoes off, and just sat there. An aid station guy pointed me toward a creek running under the rifugio – I could cool my feet there. Since it couldn’t get any worse, I decided to do that – crystal clear ice cold water. Heaven. I decided to finally take off all the crap that the medics had put on my feet. I had developed blisters under my heel blisters which required me to use a knife to cut into rather deeply to drain them, and I simply lathered everything in Hydropel. Some of the bandages had cut into my skin rather than protect which explained some of the pains. I even investigated my orthotics to see if there was any foreign object that could explain my toe pain, and to my surprise I found a layer of gravel had embedded itself in the orthotic where the layers had delaminated. I could even feel a little sharp rock poke up just enough under my toe to be an irritant. No wonder I felt so much pain!
I don’t know if I really resolved my issues or if it was all in my mind, but once I left the aid station my feet were in much better shape. I was moving very strongly, partially since I was worried that Steve and Harry might show up behind me, laughing at my no-sleep approach (as it turns out they were quite a bit behind still, but a little paranoia is always a good motivator). I motored toward the col with good speed and reached it in a great mood.
The initial descent of the col was very gradual and easy, and I was able to run it fairly well. Even when it got steeper, I kept it up, just occasionally stopping and admiring the views. I called Jill from the col and she was going to meet me halfway so we could go together to the finish. Life was good!
I reached Bonatti feeling strong! I ordered a soda and had some food. The next section to rif. Bertone was actually overlapping with UTMB (as well as most of the way to the finish) though in the opposite direction. It was rolling and fairly easy, though we climbed quite a bit back up. In 2010 this section was extremely difficult for me as I was so sleep-deprived I could barely function to the level where I didn’t know where I was or if I was going to walk off a cliff, but this time I was going extremely strong, running uphills and looking forward to meeting Jill, all the while hoping Harry wouldn’t catch up to me all of a sudden!
When I met Jill I had made excellent time and soon we hit Bertone. The last descent was technical and steep, with rocky trail. I couldn’t muster any more running and we power-hiked down the trail. It looked like I would finish quite a bit earlier this year, not as much better as I had secretly hoped, but what did it matter – finishing this thing was major. Also I was happy I was gonna make it to the Greifensee half marathon which my brother signed us both up for – he was running it as well. “So, maybe we can drive to my brother’s tonight, so we can get some good sleep before the half marathon tomorrow?” I asked Jill. “Are we really gonna do that stupid race?” Jill replied exasperatedly. She had barely slept the whole week between jetlag and meeting me at the worst possible times at the live bases. Still, I pouted – I wanted to see my brother, and hey it wasn’t stupid (of course it was a stupid idea!), and after 128 hours you can get a little sensitive and emotional, you know. But soon enough, all was forgotten, especially when we finally hit the beginning of the paved section. I started to run and Jill said I should go ahead. I took off and ran towards the finish. As soon as I turned into the city I was greeted by more and more cheers, cowbells and high-fives – it was as if I was winning this thing! The atmosphere was crazy energetic, and I held up until I ran into the finish area! There were even kids getting my (and other finishers) autograph, it was quite a spectacle. A little later Thomas made it into the finish as well, and Jill showed up to give me a big hug. It was done!
Tappa 8 – Greifensee
We had pizza and beer and made our way to our apartment – another 300ft or so of climbing. I guess at this point it didn’t matter anymore … and strangely, I felt stronger now than I had before the race. We agreed on driving to my brother’s in the morning – it was a 4 hour drive to my brother’s and another 2 hours from there to the Greifensee race. Wisely I had packed most of my stuff before the TDG started so I didn’t have to do much. The shower was not as painful as anticipated. We got up very early the next morning and were on our way.
We had a good breakfast at my brothers and went on our way. My feet were of course still crazily painful, particularly my heel blisters, toes and my comically rising big toenail with its huge blister underneath. I wasn’t quite sure if I was able to even walk it, and I got a bit worried about the cut-offs. I applied some tape, took it back off. The Greifensee lauf is a huge event, a zoo with 15000+ people, and there was no escape nor rest. I went to the start (which was a 1-2 mile walk in itself) with a tube of hydropel firmly gripped. At this point, the TDG was still happening, a few hundred km away. It was surreal.
As soon as we started I fell into a run – and it didn’t feel so bad. I was rather tired, but put up an even pace. I even left Jill behind and though it felt hard, my feet allowed me to keep going (gripping my hydropel) for a slow but satisfying 2:01 finish. You gotta realize you still have to run to get that, so I was pretty happy. As soon as I got into the finish my feet were hurting again like hell, go figure.
All in all it was a worthy adventure yet again. TDG is insanely hard but eminently doable if you just keep going, even slowly, and I can only recommend this race to anyone. A million thanks go to Jill, who was super sweet and supportive and made this a lot of fun, to Martina, Harry and Steve who are always a blast to hang out with (and Martina for supporting us all), Anne, Uwe, Thomas, Nicky, Stevie, Doone, Dima and Karen and many others for fun company along the way, Carlo Favre for awesome company and sharing his ricotta cheese with me (he finished 4 hours ahead of me, probably because he had more ricotta!!!) and all the other competitors, helpers and friends.