The room emptied in a quick if not fully sober fashion into the side alley and once again we were on the run, or hike. With an acute awareness that this might take another 100+ hours to get done, nobody was springing out of the blocks hard on cold legs. Even just a few minutes from where we’d spent the uncertain early hours of morning, we could look back and see the white-dusted mountains we had climbed and descended through the night before. In the first light of a blue-sky day, their calm beauty spoke little of the chaos and jeopardy just hours before.
Heading uphill once again it was time to stop and readjust layers, in the usual cycle of too cold to move – get moving – heat up too much – stop to shed layers – feel cold again – stuff it all in pack – get moving again. And of course the other cycle of stop another 80 metres up the track – dig around in bag – find lube – apply to chafed bits – stuff it back in bag – readjust to the left – get moving again.
Even at this early stage, a couple of entrants could be seen coming back down the track, looking like they’d forgotten something. Making eye contact to query what was up, their reply was just a shrug without slowing as they headed back to the checkpoint. To see people pulling out this early at the simple thought of a hill, or perhaps at the memory of rockfalls the night before, was a mixed moment. Yes, this is only going to get harder. There’s more of who-knows-what to come, and it’s a shame you’re not going to be there for it. But, then again, I’ve outlasted you. And even that gutless little coward of a voice, ‘do you wanna pull out?’. The reply was still pretty easy, ‘don’t be a dick, let’s go.’
As we came into a mountain-ringed valley there was some quick photo-taking. This was a stunningly beautiful morning. There was snow behind us, snow and two big climbs ahead of us, but we were here laughing in the sun after a night that exceeded expectations of ferocity, and it felt great.
We were a conga line, runners stretched ahead and behind as the power hike revved its engine. Moving up a gentle slope contrary to the flow of the crystal river beside us, we tended left as the next valley revealed the joys it had in store for the morning. Col du Entrelor, a 3030m barrel of laughs we as yet had little idea about rose up in front of us, as similarly stunning snow-covered ridges moved behind us. Trudging a series of switchbacks, the day felt cold again as the wind steadily picked up and grey clouds moved in over the range behind us, soon to block the sun.
One of the remarkable things about alpine mountainscapes is how uniformly the snowline defines a particular altitude. We hit the straight edge of white at about 2400 metres, and shortly afterward the foot-and-a-half-wide trail we were moving along became sludge, then frosty sludge, and then more or less an inch-thick coating of ice with dirt and snow either side of it. We’d gone from Sound of Music to Mordor in under an hour. The higher you went, looking back every half hour or so to see how others were progressing, the less green or brown of grass would appear in your rear vision. Everything became white, grey, black.
Again, the oxygen depletion added to the challenge as the climb went higher, but the focus was on sure footing. As progress slowed and trains of runners came together to form one slow single file, a French runner heckled an Italian runner who was moving slowly just ahead of him. I interjected in a mess of French and English, encouraging him to be patient and let this other runner get across the slippery terrain. We’re all together in this and we would all get through it soon enough I told him. As we reached the final steepening of the climb, the shorter, chubbier French runner ducked around one side of the Italian and nimbly danced up an icy arrangement of overlaid rocks with a steep drop on one side. Meanwhile the Italian made his way slowly upward like a drunken grandma in shoes that had no grip whatsoever.
After about 5 minutes of queueing patiently behind this guy who’d come to a mountain race with no traction, we’d progressed maybe 50 metres to an area with room where the line of 8 of us might easily pass by. The option wasn’t offered. Instead he just spread his wobbling legs even wider. ‘It might be easier if we go by you here, hey?’ I suggested. ‘No,’ he replied, shuddering like a newborn baby giraffe in pink lycra capri, ‘is better you are all behind me in case I fall.’ Suddenly I understood the pissed-off Frenchman much better than I had just minutes before. Soon enough we picked our way across the last of the ascent, using dirt and snow for footholds where possible and ice when there was no other option.
An incredible sight appeared over the lip of the climb, a snow-ringed valley with even more jagged ridgelines defining the horizon. ‘That’s where we’re going, the highest one,’ said one runner as they passed next to me. Having the sense that at some time later today, we would be looking back to where we were now just as we were now looking forward to see where we would be gave me a fuzzy warm sense of Hakuna Matata. But let’s get out of here. Once again dropping past a helicopter-installed survival shelter with functioning stove, hardy Italian mountaineers, and a cauldron of hot, sweet fruit tea and icy cold Cokes, I was descending, ridiculing my optimism that these two badass climbs might be knocked over by lunchtime. Ha!
There was still a natural sorting of the field to take place. Some of the runners either side of me had arrived a couple of hours into the last checkpoint after me, just as some had arrived an hour ahead. There’s no real point getting into conversation with someone who’s going to quickly pull away from you, or who might drag you back. The experience of the run was still the natural pacesetter, and descending when you don’t feel like you’re going to slide off the course and into space is a blast. Getting a bit of a trot on, it was easy to understand how runners might leave themselves useless by blowing the legs apart on the descending sections of Tor Des Géants. I pulled back, knowing that we’d get across these high altitude cow paddocks soon and have flatter trail to run and roll soon enough.
And this was my next pleasant surprise. Once I could actually get any kind of running rhythm going, all I could feel was my lower guts shaking and lurching up, back, and forward like a half full bottle of cola on the run. European trail etiquette seemed to be all about not going directly on the trail, but at least – and using metric estimations – anywhere from 1 to 5 centimetres from where people might be walking or running. Gastric urgency was tempered by an ordinary degree of shyness, so it was another uncomfortable kilometre before I could drop duds and explode behind an apparently unused but certainly scenic traditional stone and tile building at the trailside. And yet some people seemingly won’t be happy until trailrunning is an Olympic sport. After a day and a half of Delhi belly, I already felt like I had five rings.
The descent continued, with an increasing amount of tall vegetation signalling that the turn upward must again come soon. This would be to the third of the three high passes, and shortly thereafter the 102km mark and our second life base. I could feel the soles of my feet moulding into a wrinkled asymmetry as they dried somewhat from the day before and the thought of fresh socks and shoes held an appeal that bordered on erotic, though not necessarily in any way that people outside endurance sports might hope to really understand.
We began to see the camouflaged rangers of the Gran Paradiso National Park which we were now running through. With their binoculars raised to their eyes and aimed in the direction we had come from, I wondered whether they were monitoring our extra-fecular activities and hoped that time penalties wouldn’t be leveraged against craps taken in protected areas. Otherwise, I might end up going way behind the 150 hours allowed for the race. Yep, it was that bad.
Concerns of poo-based-disqualification aside, the focus was now on what lay ahead – Col du Loson. After pumping cola, Hydralyte, bananas and other solid food into the body at Eaux Rousses and helping a dude tuck the speedlaces on his Stinson ATRs in a way that wouldn’t bounce – yeah baby, HOKA 24/7 – the climb began.
Sending some quick messages back to friends in Australia, I said that we were starting a climb with 900 metres of ice likely at the top. Boy was that the wrong call. Heading up and away from the town, the trail took us past mountain homesteads and into an unpopulated valley, ringed again by epic mountainsides and divided by a gorgeous river. My friend Jill, Beat’s partner, was coming back the other way and stopped to say hey and let me know how he and the race generally were going. When she asked how I was going I pretty much gave her a poo report before moving on. Having the benefit of reflecting on this exchange I reminded myself to focus on all the things that were going right, lest I dig myself an ultra moodhole. Sage advice.
Soon the real climb ahead became apparent, with a wide zigzag across the brown grasses of the lower plain rising up into sheer metallic-grey walls standing high above our approach and just a dusting of snow across the rugged roof we would soon be clambering over. At the edge of the trail at the threshold of my invisible 2500m Real Altitude Boundary, an Italian dude who looked like he knew what he was doing in high country stood, waiting to cheer us on. But as I approached he took on the aspect of one of the symbolic prophets from a David Lynch movie. His friendly applause gave way to something more compelling, and he leaned in toward me as I passed close by. ‘Be smart,’ he exhaled at me, on an angle. And then he was gone, drifting down the trail to inform/unnerve the shit out of the runner behind me.
It seemed fair enough. Fatigued runners of mixed experience, some only with feeble ultralight kit, heading to a high pass with thin air, steep drop-offs, and potentially icy and windy conditions – being smart wasn’t high on our list of priorities. After a bit more climbing I purged myself once more – unfortunately, I think, into a marmot hole – and suited up with waterproof pants and heavy jacket, ready for an alpine onslaught.
It never came. But I will say that doing a steep 800 metre climb in full protective gear in mild to warm conditions is at least as exhausting as fighting a heavy storm in a t-shirt, with the only bonus being that the fight against weather conditions fires the adrenal glands, whereas a 2-hour trudge in weather-protective gear absolutely doesn’t. What would have been smart would have been waiting until I was a bit cold or a bit wind-blown to put on said technical fabrics. But maybe they slowed me down enough that by the time I got to 3,000 metres, all of the ice I’d anticipated had melted in the sun, and now the only hard thing to deal with was the general lack of oxygen. I think the last 300 metres of climb genuinely took about 90 minutes – punctuated by swearing, staring at the ground feeling pointless, 20-metre sprints which ended in staring at the ground feeling pointless, more swearing, some dying-fish-style-gasping, and more often than not trudging. Whatever trick I could apply – walk for a count of 20, walk the next 3 corners before stopping again, it’s really not much farther, let’s get this done – the apathy of altitude won almost every round, until finally I was at the top, looking back to where we had come from, as originally forecast. It felt like a major milestone in the total scheme of things.
Beneath us and looking ahead, I could see Rifugio Sella, another hut I had stayed at prior to the event. It looked pretty close, and I began the rundown expecting to be there in about 15 minutes.
An hour of epic scenery later, I was finally at Sella, once again experiencing the wonder of a ceramic hole in the ground with footplates either side. Away from the smallest room in the rifugio, hot soup and tea and the usual assortment of cheeses, meats, biscuits, and Nutella was on offer. The day was winding down and I still had a hope of getting down to Navotney, the town directly below, without my headtorch – the true ultrarunner’s measure of passing time.
But then Beat showed up, so of course I was going to wait ten minutes. I was stoked to see him – this is the guy who planted the seed I was now harvesting, all the way back in 2011. This was the dude whose girlfriend gave me my first alternating fun and torture test riding a fatbike in the hills of Los Altos. Senatori Jegerlehner, finisher of every Tor Des Géants would make an awesome adventure companion. Although this same guy had also caught up at least 3 hours on me after being stopped at the shelter a whole mountain behind me the night before. I was going this slow now? Slow enough to get easily caught up by a dude who’d done an even tougher 200-miler at PTL just over a week ago? Really? Son of a bitch.
Headtorches locked and loaded we headed into the cold of dusk. His spirits seemed at 100% upness, as did mine, and it cheered me even further to hear that his feet were way worse now than mine would possibly be in a few days time when we finished this thing. It wasn’t schadenfreude that made me smile, though. It was recognition of the right attitude.
There is a way to do things, just as there is a way to not do things. To be negative, to be critical without good humour, to have thoughts that only inflect downward with a moaning or whining tone – this is not the way to do things, this is not the person to travel with, this is not the contagion that you want. But to find the funny side of suffering, to mock pain’s lack of power over decisionmaking, at the very least to acknowledge that something is totally shit and that is just the way that it is and then get on with it, this is what Lao Tzu would have called ‘the way’ if he had taken time out from writing poetic philosophy to go run some ultras and really get his Zen properly handed to him.
And so we ambled on. I was slightly perturbed that Beat’s long-striding walk was faster than my rolling ultra shuffle, but then I realised his lanky stride was also faster than his own ultra shuffle. Down the bottom of the long descent I mugged him for a couple of highly prized Wet Ones and we were soon on our way to Cogne and the wonders of a night-time lifebase.
It was good to see Jill and Majell again and Majell’s coach and mate Robbie Britton slung me a sweet ‘I f____ing love a good hill’ trucker’s lid. Apart from Robbie being a dude and an upfront guy – he’d written shortly after his ugly UTMB attempt about the psychology of a self-inflicted DNF – the hilarity of the word ‘hill’ in the midst of what we were doing was totally self-evident.
The lifebase had the colour and noise of the Easter show, although in reality it was a giant white tent with a time-in/time-out zone, maybe 200 runners, supporters, volunteers, and media milling around, and a giant kitchen area where sweet Italian mamas served soup from pots so vast they couldn’t even see over the top of.
We grabbed our numbered orange bags from the helpers out the back and headed for food and a table. As I fumbled with my gear and pasta, Beat turned up with beer and tuna. Given that I was going to grab some sleep here – so far I’d had maybe 2 hours since the previous morning but was travelling pretty well – beer made a heap of sense. Optimising meals also meant getting protein in, so smashing tuna into the pasta was a good idea. In my drop bag, I also had a number of soft bottles with pre-mixed powders in. The main mixture I had was Naked Tailwind with glutathione (an amino for endurance support) and glutamine (for tissue repair, glycogen uptake, and immune support). I’d been contemplating how to best use this earlier in the run when I could feel elements of my body feeling a bit compromised. So I shook a big chunk of the powder into a cup and mixed it with mineral water for some variety. Then I injected insulin manually, straight into muscle rather than fatty tissue. Doing this means that the insulin acts twice as fast, but half as long. Because I was meaning to sleep for less than two hours, this would mean that the insulin’s active life would only be about 90 minutes and therefore not effect me or need further consideration when I got going again. Also, lying down and sleeping slows metabolism, and injecting into standard sites might therefore render little metabolic value at all, leaving me with a high blood sugar if anything, and instead waking up feeling dehydrated and sluggish. Adaptation is really the name of the game for anyone serious about endurance.
Putting various items I wanted to change into or take with me on the next leg into a light canvas shopping bag I had packed before the race, I took my running pack, swag of goodies, and orange bag into the mysterious sleeping quarters. Hilariously, the volunteer who was showing me where it was had run ahead before quickly remembering where he was, coming back, and doing the whole thing a lot more slowly.
It was like a large, dark gymnasium, filled with maybe eight or ten rows of single camp beds, with fifteen or twenty beds in each row. Finding an empty bed, I set to changing my running shorts, getting my shoes and socks off to let my feet dry while I slept, then packing my running bag with necessary food and warm clothing for the next leg. Beat and Jill had told me that the next section was mostly inside a gorge beside a river and really cold, and that on top of this the organisers had also announced that the night would again be really cold. With pack prepped (good advice from Ewan Horsburgh to Jess, to be prepared before you go to sleep during long stuff, so that you can just get up and go when you wake – hopefully with everything you need) I set my phone alarm, pulled my buff over my eyes, and went to sleep with anxious thoughts about sleeping through my alarm and getting caught by the cutoff. I slid my phone and the charger it was connected to closer to my head and passed out.