Written by Stephanie Case - https://ultrarunnergirl.com
Giant piles of glistening cow shit. They were everywhere, mocking me. Obscene displays of effective bowel functions – something that I hadn’t been able to do for days. I hated those piles of shit and the cows that excreted them. Arrogant f*$kers, I muttered under my breath as I passed a group of them. They just sat there chewing, clearly unimpressed with my profanities, dismissing me with a few slow blinks. I continued waddling along the trail, my gait slightly impacted by my protruding belly, when I suddenly tripped on a relatively flat section of grass and landed spread-eagle – chalk outline murder victim styles – in the cow patty-infested field. Okay fine, I deserved that.
Tor des Geants 2017 was unlike anything I was expecting. Having done the race twice before (2015, 2016), I went into it knowing that I could finish and aware of what challenges I would probably face over 330 km and 24000m of climbing. I felt better trained and raced than the year before when I managed 2nd female, and while I had no illusions that I could improve my place, I thought I could finish the race this year suffering less. How utterly naive that was…. As my Italian friend and local Hotel Croux legend, Corrado, told me, “If you wanted to suffer less, you should have signed up for a half marathon or a marathon”. That is the Tor. No matter how prepared you might be, it will find other ways to challenge you, and suffering is just a part of the journey.
Going into the race, my head just wasn’t in it for some reason. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong. Ever since my accident on 1 January this year, all I’ve been focused on is returning to Aosta Valley to conquer the Tor. But the closer it got, the more checked out I became. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I knew it was a problem. When you are facing a 330km race, you have to be fully committed or you won’t make it through. This was going to come back to bite me.
The ‘elite’ checkin and bib ceremony went by in a blur. Drop bag packed, crew briefed and ready, and stomach full of Italian carbs. I stood on the start line dazed, but in a way relaxed. It was like I wasn’t fully there, so that helped reduce the potential panic I might have otherwise felt at taking on this ridiculous challenge again.
Like all European races, it started off at a ridiculous 5km pace, and I just tried to settle into my rhythm. The sun was shining and the weather looked good – albeit quite cold – for the next few days, so I just tried to enjoy the wonderful feeling of moving. In Tor, you have to almost forget that you are running – forward motion must simply become your new state of being, as automatic and mindless as sitting on a park bench and staring at the clouds. Anything involving more conscious thought or effort becomes too exhausting after multiple days. Knowing this, I used those first few hours to try to relax and let my brain wander. My primary goal would not be speed, but rather finding the motivation I seemed to have lost to run the race in the first place. Once I found that, the legs would follow, surely.
I hit Rifugio Deffeyes at around 25km at expected pace, and stuffed some food in my mouth before climbing up the boulder field to “Haut Pas” at 2860m. I knew I was farther back in the field than the previous year, but I thought I was moving fairly well. Nausea started to rear its ugly head, right on schedule, but I was armed with Zofran to keep it at bay. I felt better prepared and ready for Tor than ever before. But where was my brain?
I knew I would get a boost when I hit Chalet de l’Epee that night and saw my friend Ivo and his wonderful family members. I’ve stayed for a night there during training the past
three years, and it is a little haven of awesomeness. Ivo doesn’t speak English, but we get by together in French. There was a tv camera there and I squeaked something out in French about how the competition was much stronger this year than in the past. Katia Figini was there as well and told me she wanted to drop, pointing to her head. I knew exactly how she felt, but encouraged her to come follow me out of the chalet in the hopes that the two of us could find our heads together.
I didn’t really hit any major difficulties until Eaux Rosses in the early hours of night one/day two. Kate and Fergus, my super crew extraordinaire, were there ready and waiting (and clad in orange) to attend to my every need. I ran into the tent, plonked down in a chair, and was immediately covered in a warm puffy jacket. The air temperature had dropped significantly in the night and I was about to face sub-zero temperatures over Col Loson, the highest pass on the Tor course at 3300m. “Soup. Hot soup. And lemon soda? I really need to fuel,” I blurted out to Kate, who quickly ran over to the food table to fetch me some broth. My stomach was growling and I had a huge climb ahead. At some point I looked over and Raffaele was sitting on my left, calmly eating and staring straight in front. “Tutto bene?” I asked, pointing to my stomach. She shrugged and nodded, and I did the same. I was grateful that my nausea from earlier that day had subsided.
That gratitude lasted a full 60 more seconds. Suddenly I was throwing up into my cupped hands (why, why?) and watching the vomit spill out on to my pants. I proceeded to throw up four or five more times on to the concrete floor of the tent, gasping out apologies to the volunteers in between wretches. It. Was. Miserable. I popped another Zofran and willed it to dissolve before the next vomiting episode (it did – barely). A volunteer rushed over and suggested I lay down for an hour or two to rest. “No no, tutto bene, tutto bene,” I said, smiling and trying to look cheerful as I wiped my mouth. “This happens to me all of the time.”
“It’s true,” said Kate nodding, who remained completely unfazed by anything that was happening.
Another bystander offered me some ginger pills while the volunteer got on the phone with one of the race doctors. I was feeling much better and eager to get moving again, and I didn’t want to wait around for the doctor. I know they’ve got a tough job to do keeping the runners safe, but I have become quite adept at the puke-and-rally after my racing this year, and I knew I was good to go. I looked over at Kate, who immediately got my vibe. The two of us rushed to get me dressed and back out the door into the night, ready for the long climb up to Col Loson, before anyone else got a different idea.
Normally I’m quite strong on the climbs, but without much food in me, I was less than spritely. The cold air was affecting my breathing as well. Despite all of my training at altitude, I found myself short of breath and struggling to make it to the top. I kept checking my watch, waiting to see the black summit outlined against a brightening sky, but night seemed to stretch on hundreds of metres too long. I threw out my negative thoughts onto the trail, hoping they would skim across the surface like a skipping stone, but instead they just boomeranged back into my head, weighing me down.
I was off. There was no denying it. I trudged on, trying to scrape the frozen vomit from my pants, but there was no point. This was just the way it was.
I reached Rifugio Sella on the other side of the Col sometime in the morning and changed into shorts. My friend Gabriel Szerda showed up just as I was leaving, grinning from ear to ear at having caught up to me (we have a ridiculously hilarious seven-year long rivalry, and after getting beaten by him in UTMB and a stage race, I knew Tor was my only chance for victory). “I’m stuffed, Gab,” I said defeated. “You win this one.”
Gab caught up to me at the bottom of the descent and we ran in towards the second life base in Cogne (100km) together. That’s when I told him I was going to drop. I really started to wrap my brain around the thought of giving up, and trying to figure out if I would be okay with it in the end… I was still doing the mental gymnastics when I caught up to my crew at the life base. They were all business, and I was checked out. I felt awful that they seemed to be more committed to the race than I was, and it made me feel incredibly guilty about even thinking of quitting. But that’s all I wanted to do. Kate handed me some ice cream bars and I shovelled two of them down. I was going through the motions as if I was going to continue, but my brain was just shouting NO. When Corrado showed up, I knew I was in trouble – there was no way he was going to let me drop. I felt even worse telling a local that I was defeated so early on in the race by his mountains – it was like a slap in the face. “The weather is good today – just go out and enjoy the sunshine,” someone from my crew told me, quite matter-of-factly. Dropping out really didn’t seem to be an option. I agreed to just go on towards the next life base 50km away and make a decision there. But leaving the checkpoint I couldn’t help but feel like I was taking steps in the wrong direction.
Over the next 50km, I worked really hard to commit to my dropping out mentality. I told myself it was the smart choice – my body had been through so much this year already, maybe now was really the time to back off and give it a rest… I crafted my facebook post in my head to make sure I got the right tone (wistful but wise) and then patted myself on the back for being so evolved. I congratulated myself. You don’t have anything to prove! You’ve done this race before. You’ve gotten so much out of your training. There’s nothing else to get from the race. Time to step back and leave the Tor alone. Good for you, Case. Smart decision. On the long descent to Champorcher, I stopped in Rifugio Dondena for a plate of fried eggs and called my parents, rationally talking through my decision. They told me they’d support me regardless. I felt entirely settled, and resolved to enjoy the last couple of hours of my race. It was over.
Until it wasn’t.
I got a text from Corrado that told me I was in fourth, and if I dropped out he would strangle me (smiley emoji). Stick to your guns, Caser! It doesn’t matter what place you are in! I was dropping. No question. I ran into the checkpoint in Champorcher, confident in my decision but welling up with emotion at the thought of disappointing Kate and Fergus, who had taken an entire week out to support me. Jose and Corrado were both there with pizza, along with Charley, who had helped me train. “The choice is absolutely yours,” said Kate. “But you should know you are in third place.”
Damn it. This was not a part of my plan.
I made it to Donnas (150km) and tried to do as quick of a turnaround as possible so that I could make it up to Rifugio Coda at 170km before falling asleep. It would be a 2000m climb, the longest climb in the race, so it was no small task. But I was feeling surprisingly more awake than last year. I made it to the refuge eager for my first sleep, and hunkered down for a rather restless 90 minutes. When I woke up, one of the female volunteers brought me some soup. As I lifted a spoonful to my mouth, she told me that she was the nurse who cut off my clothes when I was wheeled into the emergency room in the hospital in Aosta after my accident. I was floored. “You were really upset I was ruining your clothes,” she said smiling. (I had been wearing new Salomon gear and was obviously in shock, so I didn’t understand why I couldn’t just remove my clothes myself). Wow.
It wasn’t the only time in the race when that would happen. At Champoluc at 222km, one of the medical volunteers told Fergus that he had also worked on me in the hospital in January. And at 300km at Bosses, a local came by to tell me that the people of Aosta Valley loved me, and were cheering for me after my accident. Even at the awards ceremony, the local police officers mentioned that they were the ones to take down my accident report. They were all there.
In one of my (many) low moments of the race, Kate told me that if I was going to continue to the finish, I needed to find that reason why I had lined up on the start line in the first place. I needed to find my motivation for running, for tolerating the pain, for pushing through the sleep deprivation, and for accepting days of discomfort. Without it, I wouldn’t make it. It was exactly what I had told myself on day one, and it was so true.
These few ‘trail angels’ helped me find it, and kept reminding me along the way when I faltered. Nine months ago, I was laying in a hospital bed in Aosta with a tube draining blood out of my chest, a catheter shoved between my legs draining urine, six broken ribs and a mangled liver. At that time, having the chance to run in Tor des Geants seemed like an impossible dream, but one that I was determined – resolved – to accomplish. I could think of nothing else other than getting my body strong enough to tackle those mountains. Being reminded of how broken I was then and how far I had come was just what I needed to keep pushing forward. Everyone else on the trail was suffering and in pain like I was, and they weren’t giving up. So why did I think I had any excuse? This is what I had wanted and dreamed of nine months ago, and I had gotten my wish. I had regained enough strength to compete. There was no excuse for screwing it up now just because I couldn’t be bothered.
It wasn’t easy though, believe me. In fact, it is hands down the toughest race I have ever done. I truly thought that 2016 was unbeatable in terms of monumental challenges… I was so, so wrong. In 2016, I remember surging into second place at Niel, racing up the hill after breezing through the checkpoint in a matter of minutes. This year, I slumped on a bench inside the chalet, resting for a quick back massage, a beer, and a pep talk. The differences were like night and day.
On day three, I started experiencing massive amounts of bloating in my belly, which extended to extreme swelling in the entire lower half of my body. Parts of me that shouldn’t have ever swollen started exploding, which was as worrisome as it was uncomfortable. I thought maybe it was constipation (hence my jealously over the cow patties), but that didn’t explain the swelling in my legs. After my fall on fourth night, my entire right leg became marked with bruises, turning my skin into something of a horrifying Jackson Pollock painting.
At Oyace, the place where my 2015 race ended due to a shortened course, the wheels really fell off. I came into the checkpoint strong, intending to pass the next Col before sleeping with over a two hour lead on fourth place… but once I took off my shoes and saw my bleeding toes and blistered heels, I broke down for some reason. It all hit me. I had managed to quiet the ‘drop out’ voices for the last 170km, but they were shouting at me. It was just too much.
Kate convinced me to just sleep for an hour to see how I would feel (okay, I negotiated an hour and ten minutes). When I woke up, I was so comfortable that I just didn’t want to move. But I dragged myself back to the bench and shoved some cake down my throat, sending the carbs towards the floating orb that formerly resembled my stomach. I sat there for what felt like an hour, telling myself to put on my shoes and then almost simultaneously giving myself permission to quit. I was stuck in my own personal hell with no way out. I could not fathom 60 more kilometers, but equally I couldn’t face the disappointment of dropping out. I was paralyzed.
Finally, I put on my shoes and walked out the door. I got no more than 20 steps before I turned around and headed back to the checkpoint, determined to drop out. Ahhhhhh!!!!! I couldn’t do it. This race wouldn’t let me quit. I did a 180 again and charged up the mountain. Damn it. I managed to get my sense of humour back enough by the next little checkpoint halfway up the climb to joke about the twins I was having (bambina and bambino) with the volunteers as they laughed and pointed at my belly. Sigh.
When I rolled into Ollomont, the crew was armed with encouragement. Amy Sproston, who I had crewed at UTMB the week prior, rallied the troops online and I got some amazing messages of support. It made me feel like I had an army behind me out on the trail, and I wasn’t alone in my struggle. (If you want to understand the story behind #getintheboat, read this here!).
The rest of the night consisted of me weaving up and down trails in a haze of sleep deprivation, watching my body expand by the minute it seemed. Huge thanks to Leah, who chatted with me over the phone to keep me awake in the wee hours (including during my bathroom breaks – that’s true friendship right there). After the sun rose for the last time and I finally made it into Bosses, I took what I thought was my last nap, having maintained a comfortable lead of a couple of hours. I set out into the pouring rain for my last climb. It was almost over.
Until it wasn’t.
As I climbed up towards Rifugio Frassati at around 2500m, the pelting rain turned to sleet and then snow, making my footing tricky and increasing my sense of confusion and isolation. It was freezing and I had plenty of layers, but there was something about that weather that sent me into a bit of a panic. I remembered trying to go over Col Malatra last year in the snow and being completely terrified, and the thought of doing it again was just too much. I had only had about 4 hours of sleep over the past four days at this point, so my abilities to self-soothe were non-existent….
I burst through the doors of Rifugio Frassati and collapsed in front of the iron fireplace in the centre of the room, shaking with full-body sobs. I don’t know what I was even crying for, but it was all coming out. I had been fighting my body and my mind for so long, and I was done. Alfredo, one of the volunteers, sat next to me and comforted me, wrapping me in an emergency blanket and then a real blanket, and helping me to dry my clothes. He got me food and cupped my face with his hands, telling me things in Italian that sounded just what I needed to hear to calm down. I should have been mortified by my behaviour, but I had no ability to hold back. This was me, raw and unfiltered. Swollen and bruised. Other runners started to trickle in, each looking more wet and cold than the last, and we all hunkered down, watching the snow pile up outside. I laid down on the bench and closed my eyes, intending to sleep for just a few minutes….
After what I think was about half an hour, I got up and had a hot chocolate. One of the volunteers warned me that Marina, the fourth place female, had arrived. She came into the refuge looking strong and determined – I was so impressed. At that point, I can honestly say that it didn’t even bother me one bit that I was losing third place. I assumed I would lose fourth as well. And I didn’t care. I had flipped into survival mode and was doing the best I could, so there was no point worrying about trying to go faster – it wasn’t going to happen. One of the volunteers had taken my vitals and cleared me to go on, but a nurse got sight of my leg and put on the brakes. With the bruising, swelling and pain, she worried it could be DVT and that I would throw a clot to my lungs if I continued. With just about 20km left in the race, stopping there was unfathomable. No, it wasn’t over yet.
After much negotiations in Italian between the volunteers and the nurse, and some idiotic attempts on my part to convince her I was fine (like hopping up and down in my underwear on my leg), she allowed me to continue. I set out in a group that included the hilarious Aussie Tegyn and we headed for the Col. Thankfully, it had stopped snowing, and we were blessed with brilliant sunshine…. save for my elephant legs and growing twins in my belly, it was almost perfect.
For the last 20km, I was reduced to a painful shuffle/waddle. My thighs had expanded so much that I had to cut my waterproof pants into a skirt to release them. I could almost feel the ground shake as I trundled along, marmots screaming for their lives on the trail ahead, hiding themselves in holes from the wrath of stephzilla. Oh, this finish was going to be a pretty one.
Finally, over 107 hours after I started (and almost ten hours past my finishing time from last year), I made it to the finish. Shocked, overwhelmed, and in pain. It was a triumph of epic proportions, but experienced in a very different way from previous years. This Tor was different. It was brutal. It was unforgiving. And it wouldn’t let me quit.
One of the photographers took this shot of me at the finish and posted this quote: “She was powerful, not because she wasn’t scared, but because she went on so strongly despite the fear”. (Mahmoud Darwish, palestinian poet). I can’t say that I felt strong throughout that race, but I definitely overcame my doubts and fears. I was willing to give up on myself so easily… it was only because of the strength of my crew and the volunteers, and their belief in me, that I got to the end. Without them, I surely would have quit.
I thought I was coming into Tor more prepared than ever before. In retrospect, I think I was overtrained and overwrought – I had put so much into my preparation that I didn’t have much left for the race. I’m taking it as a clear sign that I really need to slow down and take a good, proper rest now. I’ve done what I set out to do back in January, and now I need some time to process it all.
Honestly, I think I’m still in shock from the race. Through all of those hundreds of miles of training and racing, I found answers to questions I didn’t even know I had. Last year, I talked about embracing my power and strength in the race; this year, I feel it was more about acknowledging and accepting my own vulnerability and frailty. Realizing that actually I can’t do everything alone, that I’m not invincible, and that ultimately I can still achieve my dreams even when everything goes wrong. Even when I think I’m at my weakest. Even when I want to give up. And I think there is actually a strength to be found in that.
Tor wouldn’t let me quit.
Until it was truly over.
I finished in fourth female and I couldn’t be prouder. This year gave me much more appreciation for what it means to really struggle in a race, and battle against yourself. I am in awe of all of the other competitors, who showed such grit and grace out on the trail, and I’m grateful to have shared this experience. I did it. No one is more surprised than I am.
Huge thanks to Kate and Fergus, Jose and Corrado from Hotel Croux, Amy Sproston (and Kaci Lickteig!), Leah Anathan, Mom and Dad, Charley, the volunteers, and everyone else who supported me and encouraged me along the way! And of course to ChafeX for keeping me chafe-free over 330km!
And a very, very special thanks to all those who donated to my campaign to raise funds to support the participation of women in the Marathon of Afghanistan this year! I will be travelling soon back to Afghanistan with Free to Run to take part in this amazing event and see the progress that we have made over the last couple of years. Stay tuned