Tor Des Géants is a single-stage mountain run easily reduced to numbers – 330km, 24,000m D+, 200 miles, 80,000 feet, 850 starters, 6 life bases, time – but that is not the story of the Tor at all. It is a beautiful adventure, composed of a number of steep climbs, high passes, and sharp descents that will all quite happily break you if you’re not in The Zone.
With a field that at some points must have been spread across 150km, everyone’s experience must be sharply different, however much there may also be in common. With finishers being spread from 200km right to the finish line when this year’s race was ultimately shut down on the morning of the 4th day because of weather hazards, a 2015 ‘finish’ will mean different things for different people. For me, the 205km mark was not deep enough in at all, and I hope to return in 2016 for the full 200 miles.
Even with the premature closure of the race, it was still my longest time on feet and at 15,000m D+ it was also the greatest amount of climbing and descending I have yet done. But I wish we’d been able to finish what we started. Most of us were utterly psyched for it.
I first heard about the TDG in 2011 when I met Swiss-American Beat Jegerlehner (pronounced ‘Dingle Manhammer’). A mutual friend put us together on a hire car booking from Salt Lake City to the Slick Rock Ultra a few hours away in the Moab Desert, as we were hitting the same airport just 5 minutes apart. Back then, as I prepared for my first 100-miler, the idea that people were running 200-milers filled me with awe and some envy. With such a focus on the distance I didn’t even tune into the elevation gain – a whopping 24,000 metres for an average gradient of 14% across the entire course – until finally entering the run of a lifetime earlier this year.
Since then, it has meant training based entirely in the pursuit of increasingly longer steep bits, repeated.
Right up until one Sunday just 10 days ago when I stood in that starting group in the town of Courmayeur, alongside my speedy partner Jess Baker, my excellent friend Beat Jegerlehner, and about 840 other runners on the Italian side of Mont Blanc, waiting for what felt like the biggest starting line moment of my life.
This is not going to be that ‘and then I ate a delicious gel’ kind of crappy write-up I hope. This is a broad overview with some details from my version of TDG 2015. Big picture is that this race through incredible alpine country takes you over about 18 passes for an average climb and descent of 1300 metres each BUT that doesn’t tell the story.
Where were we? Standing on the start line with two awesome friends, charging through the town to the clanging of cowbells and calls of ‘bravi, bravi!’. Hitting the first climb and wondering whether I could do this just long enough to remember I would just have to repeat the first climb – or its equivalent – 15 more times, once it was done. Newsflash: mud. Loads of it. For a bit over 3 hours we stomped in a zigzag up to the first pass, slopping and squelching. Over the lip and to the beginning of the first descent, perspective distorted completely. The ground seemed to bank uphill to the left and right and rise like a wall straight ahead, but runners were rapidly descending across all surfaces.
Adrenaline was master of ceremonies still but the brain was trying to get involved as well, with reminders to play the classic game – run the flats, don’t melt on the downhills, maintain progress uphill, get some food in, get some drink in, don’t make an inattentive mistake, don’t get stabbed with a pole, don’t fall over, repeat.
As we ran in the rain and slipped and slopped about a bit in the mud, the squelching resonated with my state of being. I’d taken Immodium just before the race started with my guts conveniently turning all brown river just the afternoon before. Perfect. This wasn’t to be fatal, but it would certainly be a dragged out theme I could have done without.
The next climb led to Rifugio Deffeyes, the mountain refuge at 2500m before Haut Pas, the first high climb of the race at 2850m. The Rifugio was where I’d stayed a couple of times in the preceding weeks, testing gear and picking up some local knowledge. Jess had also met the team there, Alessio the punk rocker, Sergio the house operator, and the cook whose HOKA Rapa Nui had done only 200km on trail but 300km in the kitchen – his awesome one-liner, not mine 🙂
It seems crazy to be happy with hitting the 23km mark in around 6 hours, but with the conga line running out of Courmayeur and successive steep climbs and over 300km still to go, we were really still just queueing to start. Alessio grabbed me some soup and gave me the news that Jess had been through almost an hour before. He showed me a photo of her looking typically happy and sorting out her water. I stopped here to eat properly because I felt like I had actually dipped into my legs a bit harder than I’d have wanted to. Energy levels might not have been completely divorced from digestive issues, but at least my blood sugar levels were in line with requirements and insulin was working fine even though it had also been on the road for a couple of weeks.
High 5s, excited whooping noises and all that usual stuff that happens when ultra-friends farewell each other, and off again into the mysterious mountains. Every climb past 2500m, I would feel like a 6-cylinder engine running on 4. But again, climbing up to Haut Pas I just reminded myself what I’d done in training. Find something that’s hard, do it the best you can without breaking, repeat. Soon, the pass would give way to a fast downhill across rubble and mud along a boulder-lined gully and into a wide open green valley. Giant sharply angled walls plunged dramatically down around us from the clouds above and with the sun now beginning to break through where there had only been rain, some stupid grinning now came not just from the fact that this was it and we were all actually running Tor Des Géants, but from the bonus fact that we were running through a postcard in a place only a few people would ever have seen for themselves.
Until I made it to Valgrisenche, the lifebase at 48km, the most remarkable thing about Valgrisenche had been the 5km of very runnable terrain beforehand. But when I got there, the even bigger, better surprise was that Majell Backhausen who I’d only met weeks before at UTMB (where he finished top 25, speedster!) was jumping in to help me out. He’d pulled up to me earlier at one of the checkpoints and grabbed me some water, but to help an endurance athlete sorting through night clothing, wet gear, food, batteries, and all that other crap we need to keep going for days on end is a big deal. And he knew what I needed to think about, which was a massive help.
Valgrisenche is a crazy life base. It’s totally crowded and it’s almost as though there is one onlooker for every runner in the entire race. The buzz is great, it’s exciting, but colour and movement is not what you need. You need to eat, drink, make sure you have all your good stuff for the night, and get out. Majell told me what we’d suspected, that there was snow on Fenetre – the next big pass. It made up my mind to ditch my light OMM shell for the heavier TNF Summit Series Gore-Tex. This was a good call, because the pleasantly grey and soggy conditions we were experiencing in the lowlands were no indication of what was to come.
The next time that I would spend more than half an hour at any kind of checkpoint wouldn’t be so glamorous but I thanked Majell and his fellow running journo Natalie and headed out again into the night. Nothing felt like too much effort as the trail climbed steadily away from town and back up into the surrounding mountainside. Not having really checked my map – the course marking is phenomenal – it was a nice surprise to see a glowing wooden cabin up ahead. Ducking out of the cold wet to grab a sweet tea and some water, I nearly walked out without my hiking poles. We all laughed at that one. Leaving your poles behind anywhere here would be a massive error.
And now things got interesting. It might have been around midnight on the first night. My feet and I had been anywhere from wet to soaked for the last 14 hours, and we were heading up the first of 3 gnarly climbs. From the 50km to the 100km mark at Tor Des Geants, there are 3 climbs with maximum elvations ranging from 2,850m to 3,300 and a cumulative ascent of roughly 6,000m. Partway up the first of those climbs in the middle of the night, things were only getting more extreme.
Feeling the altitude start to kick in, I knew we were at least above 2,500m. It’s the special place where I find everything starts to get just a little bit harder. And then I felt an added bonus, a complete drop in energy levels. I wasn’t sure if it was just your standard runner depletion or an insulin-related blood sugar drop. But it was bloody cold, and I wasn’t going to waste effort pulling out either of my glucose meters to see what was happening. Besides, the air had just exploded in flashes of light and rolling banging as the sky above turned to lightning. I wasn’t even interested now whether the roaring sound all around was a flowing river, rising wind, or a low-flying jet. This just had to get done. Now. Up ahead I aimed for a rock beside the trail, parked my arse on it, and tried to get to my food.
Normally, with or without gloves, getting hold of a Snickers bar would be a task achievable by a child. But I had lost all feeling in my fingers. What I had were 10 lifeless neoprene-encased sausages without the power to grip anything. Shit was getting real. Knowing this chocolate bar would fuel me through whatever was about to happen I had to get hold of it somehow. With my head down, I used the back of my hand to push up against the bottom of my top pocket. Out came a small laminated map, which I grabbed between my teeth, dropped into a waiting palm, and scooped into my jacket pocket. First, though, I grabbed a finger and bit down on it hard. I didn’t feel the bite, I just tasted something cold and neoprene-flavoured. Next, a laminated timetable, teeth, palm, pocket. Finally, the Snickers. If you have never felt the threat of a total bonk or had a blood sugar lower than your ankles then you might not relate, but that was the best chocolate bar in the history of anything ever. Even though my custom-etched HOKA Mafate Speeds were trailrunning shoes woven from the pubic hair of angels, if they came back as chocolate bars, even they could not taste as good. Licking the last cold crumbs from my lips, I lurched off the rock and joined the stream of lemmings ahead of me. We were all headed for the same climb, the same storm, the same potential disaster. Game on.
I thought briefly of Jess and assumed she was at least one mountain ahead of us on Col Entrelor at 3,000m, possibly even on Col Loson, at 3,300m. It occurred to me that even with the altitude and lightning all around her, she would have her race-face on, and it helped me to do what needed to be done – left foot, right foot.
Soon it started to hail, only it wasn’t hail – snow. Big fat flakes landing on my gloves, just a few at first, and then one ongoing diagonal flurry. All I was thinking was that once I got over the next pass, we would descend to warmer air, more oxygen, maybe even coffee. Just got to get this done first. In the dark, there were lights ahead and lights behind. Some weaving from the sleepy staggers but most now intent on getting the hell out of here, and there was only one way that would happen – climbing.
Every hill in TDG works pretty much the same – it begins to climb, then gets steep for a long time, then gets really, really steep, and then descends. My friend had given me this formula beforehand and it took a lot of the unpleasant surprise out of the race for me. So when the mountain tipped up even more, I felt good. We were actually moving forward. I had been through the whole, ‘how high? 2480m. Now how high? 2485m. Seriously? Now how high? 2486m.’ thing earlier on and was not going back into that unproductive space. We just had to get over this bastard and start descending. Shows how much I knew.
We got to the top, passing the cairn – a pile of rocks – with the name-plate and elevation on it. Nobody stopped for photos, nobody took a selfie. Everyone had a couple of inches of snow on their packs, it was insanely cold, the weather was still building, and it felt like we were keeping just out of reach of a survival situation. But now for the first big shock of the run – this is the descent?
If you want to see how fast Europeans can run down a mountain, throw a minus-10 blizzard at them. I went over the crest with about 20 runners spread over 200 metres. Within about 30 seconds, all I could see was rapidly disappearing torches glowing far away and almost directly beneath me at what seemed an impossible 60-degree incline. While I carefully placed each footfall on the narrow zig-zagging strip of slippery clay mud under my feet that had until recently been a trail, they simply made friends with gravity and fled like goats. The runner cresting near me called out ‘this is very dangerous’ in a French accent, while I half-whooped in celebration of the fact that we were at least now headed lower. But even as we got just a bit further below the apex, where the trail wasn’t slushy snow, it seemed to fill and flow like a newly born creek, growing as we got lower. Part of me thought to step over the edge and leap and slide from trail to trail, but there was a feeling that if momentum took hold at all, you’d be half a kilometre down the mountainside before you could even think of stopping.
This was the adventure we’d come for. This was extreme. And there was no turning back. There was only going forward, downward, out of this storm, as fast as possible. Every now and again, one of the lights getting further and further away below me would turn around to look briefly upward, then continue their rapid descent. ‘I’ll be that guy soon’ I told myself, even though every piece of progress felt so slow and inconsequential, with the sides of the mountain now gushing running water and the sound of its flow, and the wind all around.
With every moment stretched the time passed in a tangibly slow manner, even though it was all over in minutes and sure enough I was soon one of those lights looking back up the slope, to see that other lights were also steadily descending and in apparently good shape.
The long and switchbacked descent to Rhêmes-Notre-Dame (64.5km) took an age but when I got there it wasn’t yet 4am. As I filed into the room of what seemed a school hall with other soaked runners the volunteer ushering people threw the door asked me, ‘how was it?’.
It was a serious question, not casual, and I believe the organisation were asking all runners they could about the course conditions. We had been warned at the briefing the previous day to bring extra warm clothing because it would be ‘_____ing cold’ but I think everyone had been taken a bit by surprise in these conditions. When we were reunited, I would hear from Jess that the water which had collected inside her waterproof gloves had actually frozen hard enough that by the time she made it to her next checkpoint, helpers would pull her gloves off her hands, still literally frozen solid.
‘It’s probably on its way to dangerous,’ I answered, ‘the river level is rising pretty quickly and parts of the track looked like washing out.’ He thanked me and moved on. Inside the room, some runners were grabbing food but mostly they were spread out around maybe eight long desks, seated on benches or with their heads resting on their hands. I moved toward one end of the room, looking for a bench after I’d smashed down some soup but a volunteer stepped across the door there, saying, ‘you can’t go out, the race is stopped for now’. I didn’t have any problem with not going out, I wanted to regroup a bit before I did anyway because I knew the next climb would be tougher. But the idea of the race being stopped was a shock. Edging my way into a seat, I pulled out my fleece – the one additional piece of warmth I had – and pulled it on over my wet thermal top and wet running shirt before throwing my wet jacket over the top and finishing the whole cold wet ensemble off with my new super-fleecy mildly hilarious HOKA beanie, with pom-pom. The French head office had sorted me out with some awesome gear generally reserved for real athletes, but I was just happy to be remotely warm right now.
The room murmured and grumbled about the race stoppage. Some runners looked relieved at the idea that this might be the end of their suffering. I could relate much more to those who looked deeply disturbed that this might all be over before it had even begun. Yes, we had more than 265km still to go. We hadn’t even got through the first 24 hours. And how ever long each of us might have trained for this, all of us had suffered very deliberately to get here. Nobody was throwing in the towel now.
Like the seated wet horde around me, I had also passed out on the table with my head on the back of my hands. This is an efficient way to sleep, in that it’s easily achieved and requires minimal preparation or tidy-up afterward. You don’t even have to do your shoes up. But that’s also a waste of a chance to dry. By the time a mate in Australia woke me with a phone call at close to 5:30 to ask what was happening, I had been sleeping in a shape like a kidney bean for nearly an hour, my feet and socks had been relatively wet for close to 20 hours, and I think half the blood in my body had stopped under the table at my knees. The call was a welcome distraction from the frustration and confusion of what was going on. It wasn’t a language barrier thing, I think even the Italian runners were a bit irritable. We had heard word of rockfalls and landslides out on course, but everything was still vague and there was not yet any word of when we might get going again, or even if we would.
Passing out again on my hands, trying not to waste the time available to sleep, I again awoke in a bit of a fuzz an hour later. Naturally, other runners roused as the first daylight crept into the cold room. And soon the announcement, ‘the race will begin again at 7 o’clock’. I looked at the screen of my Ambit. It was 7:02.