Tor des Geants (TDG) is a 338km footrace around the Aosta Valley in the Italian Alps and is held in September each year. It has an advertised cumulative ascent of 24,000 metres, but this year everyone’s GPS trackers registered about 31,000 metres! The bulk of the 850 starters take the guts of a week to complete the full route, while the speed demons tend to take approximately 3 days. Here are the observations from TDG first-timer Paul Tierney, for whom it was by far the longest race he’s ever done.
The TDG race can be broken into 7 distinct sections, each punctuated by a life-base. These life bases were usually about 50k apart and located in larger towns or villages, where you had access to your drop bag and help from your crew. It was a help when trying to break down the enormity of the task to think about the race as smaller chunks that needed to be negotiated one at a time.
We drove out to the Alps 10 days before the race start and stayed in Argentiere, near Chamonix, so we were able to soak up the UTMB (Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc) atmosphere and watch some friends competing. Getting out there this early allowed me to hike/run up some big climbs and acclimatise to our very different surroundings.
My training had gone fairly well since January, apart from a stubborn medial knee ligament tear I’d sustained at the end of 2016 sometimes rearing its head. Incidentally, it never bothered me throughout TDG. Training consisted of plenty of long days in the Lake District fells, usually aiming for a more convoluted, steep approach to summits in the hope of racking up as much ascent as I could realistically manage. I tested kit, mentally steeled myself to what I was about to go through and accepted that over such a long event, something was bound to go wrong. Accepting this allowed me to be in a much better frame of mind when the inevitable happened.
The event seems to be embraced by everyone in the valley and there was a real buzz at the race start in Courmayeur on the Sunday morning. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have doubts before the start. Could I manage to run twice as far as I’d ever done before? What about the ridiculous amount of ascent and descent? Would I cope with the sleep deprivation and would the pesky knee injury affect my performance? But I also had no other goal than to finish. It was a learning experience and I’d have to get through the first few days before I could even consider letting my competitive side dictate matters.
SUNSTROKE, NAUSEA AND A DEATH MARCH
I was late getting in the queue to be scanned into the start pen and so I was almost at the back of 850 eager runners when the start count was given by the guy on the tannoy, helped by a very enthusiastic crowd lining the narrow Courmayeur streets. And so we were off. I mentioned something inevitably going wrong in such a long event. Well, it only took me an hour to realise my stupidity at not remembering to wear a cap. I’d gone and got my hair shaved quite tightly in Chamonix a few days before the start and now the sun was beaming down on my shiny scalp and slowly tenderising it! I was trying not to worry about it and luckily after about 5 or 6 hours, while running with Neil Bryant, I mentioned how silly I’d been to not remember said cap. Without hesitation, Neil said he had a spare in his pack and I was welcome to it. So that stroke of luck probably limited the damage which had already been done.
Having ticked off the first 50k I got to the life-base in Valgrisenche and changed into some warmer kit for the first night. I tried not to spend too long there, so had a quick meal and change of clothes, then set off into the dark for my first night on the route. The fried feeling I’d had from the sun began to get exacerbated by the warmer clothing and I started to overheat. It was quite difficult to regulate my body temperature because the air temperatures had plummeted, but while moving and suffering from mild sunstroke, I just couldn’t get comfortable. This led to a queasy feeling and an inability to so much as look at food. Even water made me want to vomit.
I had been hoping not to sleep during the first night of the race, but I took an hour’s lie down in the little checkpoint of Rhemes Notre Dame, then embarked on a death march all the way to Eaux Rousses at 85k, which consisted of a monster climb up to Col Entrelor at 3,002 metres and then the inevitably long, switchback-ridden descent. By the time I reached the checkpoint I resigned myself to needing another hour’s lie down in the desperate hope of salvaging my race.
When I woke I didn’t really feel much better but it was now daylight on Monday morning and that alone was a small pick-me-up for my body. The next climb was an even bigger monster – 2,000m of continuous climb – to the highest point of the course at Col du Loson, some 3,300 metres above sea level. Luckily I had some company in the form of Team GB ultra runner Debbie Martin-Consani who had passed me at some point while I was asleep. We chatted as we climbed ever higher and I was informed afterwards that I was a bit moany! I think I was just perplexed at how there could be so many switchbacks on one climb, and whether the race organisers measured these and took them into account in the overall distance. I was beginning to think they’d just measured in a straight line!
After an equally long and ball-breaking descent from 3,300 metres down to 1,500 metres I arrived at the second life-base at Cogne, 100km in. Here I met my support in the form of my girlfriend, Sarah, and fellow Ambleside AC runner Joe Mann. I was able to change some kit, get a good meal of pasta, cured meat and cheese… and even a swig of beer. I was starting to perk up now and feel that I’d come out the other side of my rough patch.
The real heat of the second day was starting to dissipate as the evening set in. This next section wasn’t going to take quite as long as the previous one, with one big climb up to 2,900 metres and then a full 30km downhill all the way to Donnas at the lowest point on the course at 300 metres. In reality it wasn’t constantly downhill and when it was going down, it usually did so in a very gradual manner. But because I’d built this up to be a potentially leg-smashing section, in the end it was a nice change. I even found time to feed a cat some cured meat at one of the smaller checkpoints! Two to four of these smaller checkpoints were located between each of the bigger life-bases, and they were often the most refreshing and uplifting places to stop. Usually in much more remote areas than the life-bases, the little checkpoints in Alpine refuges were very welcoming and friendly stops and often had the best food of all.
When I arrived in Donnas, I had a rest and one-hour lie down so that I was able to break up the second night, leaving only about an hour more of darkness before daybreak on Tuesday morning. For me, having little things like that to look forward to helped to keep me in a positive frame of mind, and the sun coming up sort of signalled to my body it was time to wake up. I’d also started to make back some of the places I’d lost during that bad spell and this further boosted my confidence. It was around that point that I’d mentioned to Sarah that I knew I’d finish. I think my exact words were “I’m going to f£&k this f£&king race up now!”
I now had a really enjoyable section during the day on Tuesday. Every time you popped over a col you were met by a whole new landscape and it was just enough to keep me interested all the time. There was no getting bored on this race. The route took us right to the outer reaches of the Alps. As we made our way to the top of the ridge that would eventually bring us to Refugio Coda, I was surprised to see a flat expanse of land as far as the eye could see in the direction of Turin. Of course, the trail then swung back to the left almost immediately and towards the lumpier Alpine ground again.
I paused for 10 minutes at the little checkpoint at Niel, where I was treated to a big bowl of local polenta in gravy and a double espresso. I now just had a big climb and descent between me and the 4th life-base at Gressoney. Eventually I reached the top and as I began to descend it felt like I was back in the Lake District with the softer underfoot conditions reminding me of the fells. Suddenly I was greeted by fellow Lake District fell runner Mark Roberts (Borrowdale), who was on holiday in the Alps for a few weeks and had gone out for an evening jog in the hope of spotting me. It really was like the fells now! It was great to see him and we had a good chat for a few minutes until he sprang back down to Gressoney ahead of me.
On this section I’d met Dimitrios, a very chatty Greek runner who kept me entertained for a few hours with his infectious good humour and seemingly boundless energy. I asked him at one point how the hell he managed to talk so much this far into the race without completely knackering himself. He saw the funny side of it and it was great to laugh at the time and ease the pain and tiredness somewhat.
I reached Gressoney in the last of the evening light and immediately prepared myself for night number three by eating some pasta, ham and cheese. I went and got a quick massage on a few tender spots (my left quad and shin were starting to scream at me). I lay down for a sleepless 20 minutes. On ‘waking’ I made some last minute kit changes but decided not to change my shoes which I had felt certain I would need to do by this stage of the race. I was wearing inov-8 X-TALON 200, which is a shoe I love and do most of my Lake District training. I enjoy the wide fit, brilliant grip and durable upper, but I think it raised a few eyebrows that I was wearing them for this race. Very heavily cushioned shoes were the ‘in’ thing and I’d guess that around 70% of participants were wearing this type of shoe. However, because I do so much of my training in shoes from the X-TALON range, my feet never caused an issue, apart from the obvious achiness that you’d expect after 3 days of racing. I had one tiny blister hardly worth mentioning by the time I’d finished and was able to jog again within 24 hours, which to me was a vindication for my shoe choice.
I was slightly worried about the lack of sleep affecting me over this next section as it was now well and truly dark and my total sleep of approximately three hours in the last 60 of racing was going to start hurting eventually. So at the refuge of Crest, about 2 hours later, I decided to grab 20 minutes sleep after being treated to what must have been one of the best-stocked checkpoints of the whole race, and it wasn’t even an official one. The spread they’d laid on wouldn’t have been out of place at a 5 star hotel’s breakfast buffet. Another double espresso buoyed my efforts for the next few hours, but even that couldn’t stop me cursing the seemingly endless next section to Valtourneche.
The climbs just seemed to go on and on and on and just when I thought I was nearing the top I’d spot a headtorch in the distance heading away from the col in a different, much longer and higher direction! I topped out at Col di Nana but still had some up and downs before the long drop to the life-base. I was so tired by the time I reached it that I mistook it for the start line of the Tot Dret race (130km sister race of Tor) which was actually 30k back the track in Gressoney. So I kept going past the life-base in the direction of the arrows a few hundred yards up the street. Just then Sarah and Joe pulled up in the van – coming down the hill to meet me in the life-base – and couldn’t understand why I’d spent so little time in the checkpoint, which in turn confused the hell out of me. When the penny dropped I cursed my stupidity and trudged back to the marquee that housed the feed station.
Inside I noticed Stephanie Case sat on one of the benches, looking like she was in a bit of difficulty. If I’m honest, and I don’t think she’d mind me saying, I thought she was about to pull out. She was coughing, wheezing and looked to be in a lot of pain. I was definitely suffering at this point but from a slightly twisted, selfish standpoint this gave me a bit of a lift. I knew Stephanie had finished in 12th position overall last year and it hit me that if someone of her standing was going through that tough a time then I was doing ok and had a great chance of getting to the finish. At the same time I felt for her because she looked absolutely knackered! So while I fully expected that her race had been run and felt bad for her, I knew there wasn’t much to be gained by asking how she was. So I hobbled into the main building to get a quick massage and to try to sleep for a bit. On my return, Stephanie was gone, so I presumed she had indeed packed it in. I quickly got myself ready and left Valtourneche at about 9am to begin my fourth day of running.
The first mile or so was very slow going as I tried to loosen up a bit. This next section was a bit different to what had gone before because it was made up of slightly shorter climbs but contained more of them. The profile looked like it was rolling terrain. In reality it was a series of big climbs that kept us hovering around 2,000 – 2,500 metres for the next 50k. After a particularly scenic section of running I made the long descent to Cuney refuge where I noticed Gabriel Szerda, an Australian runner (and former Olympic wrestler!) who I’d ran a little with on day one, in his civvies. He’d sustained a calf injury earlier in the race and unfortunately he’d had to stop. It was good to see him though and we chatted on the way into the refuge. Gab was friendly with Stephanie so he’d come to see her as she passed through. I was about to tell him she’d dropped out when to my surprise, there she was, sat inside having a short rest. I couldn’t believe she’d managed to keep going but at the same time I was really impressed she had.
Her support very kindly offered me some pizza and I got a beer from the woman in charge of the refuge. By now Gilberto, a Spaniard with whom I’d exchanged positions over the last section, arrived. He was full of chat and really loud, which was a nice boost. I gave him the other half of my beer which changed his expression to that of a kid on Christmas morning and he knocked it back without hesitation.
BRAIN TURNS TO MUSH AND ALL CIVILITY IS LOST
After an age, and another load of climbing, I reached the small checkpoint of Oyace on Wednesday evening, where Sarah and Joe were waiting. There was just one more big climb and descent before the last life-base in Ollomont. This was the first time Sarah seemed to be concerned by my demeanor. She told me afterwards that she felt sorry for the little kids outside the checkpoint who were shouting ‘bravo’ and hoping for a high-five from me while I ran past cursing. I barely registered they were there while I tried to work out how to get past all the tape that was blocking my entry. I’d actually just totally missed all the signs directing me through a gap in the tape, which was meant to help funnel me into the checkpoint entrance. My brain was now mush and this innocuous situation was really annoying me. I proceeded to be fairly rude to the nice lady offering assistance in the checkpoint and just shook my head when she asked if I would like any food.
I lay down on a bench and cursed those individuals who had measured the previous section. I simply refused to believe it was accurate. After a few more expletive ridden sentences I was up and out the door, eager to just get to Ollomont and get some sleep. The light was now fading and I struggled up through the tree-lined trail, nothing short of sleepwalking. It reminded me of one of those times where you can feel yourself falling asleep while driving. It was a horrible feeling. But I knew I still had at least 45 minutes to an hour of moving before the life-base and I really didn’t want to lie down on the side of the trail for fear of not waking up again! Obviously I wasn’t thinking very rationally at that point.
About three quarters of the way up the climb I met three jolly volunteers at a makeshift checkpoint. My mood certainly hadn’t improved at this point and I felt like punching one of them when he kept pestering me to sit on the seat provided instead of the ledge on the side of the hut where I was. Of course he was only trying to help but I’d lost all civility at that point, after about 84 hours on the go. The descent to Ollomont started off very steep and technical before giving way to more runnable terrain. As usual it seemed to go on way longer than it should have. Seeing the lights of Ollomont below made it all the more frustrating. A common theme during each night section was thinking I was almost at the bottom of a descent, only to be hit with switchback after switchback and the lights in the distance never really getting any closer.
At Ollomont I ate some chunks of roast potato, ham and pasta sauce before getting a quick massage and then climbing into one of the cots in the sleeping area. My left shin was now on fire and the pain extended up the IT band on the same side. I wondered how I’d manage to run when I woke up. I slept from midnight until 1am. Sure enough, things only felt worse after readying myself to leave. At this point I was finding it hard to think clearly, and I very nearly left a few items of mandatory kit in the checkpoint. Sarah and Joe helped me get packed up and sorted at each of the checkpoints, as well as made me protein shakes and reminded me to take salt tablets. Having a crew to think for you is a big asset and time-saver, particularly in the later stages of the race when sleep deprivation is taking its toll.
This next section had some flatter running in it (after another big climb), and I was surprised by how I fell back into running again, albeit quite slowly. The last big climb was now approaching and so too was dawn. But first I stopped at St. Rhemy en Bosses for a quick nap, having had to slap myself around the face and sing aloud to try and stave off the sleep monsters. The weather had been really clear and sunny up to this point and apart from being a little colder at night, it really was about as good as I could have hoped for. But it was changing and had begun to spit rain. The clouds were gathering ominously above Col Malatra at 3,000 metres in the distance.
By the time I’d reach the Frizatti Refuge, it was snowing lightly and I decided to take no chances with another few hundred metres of climbing so I donned some warmer kit and got my new inov-8 PROTEC SHELL waterproof jacket (see video below) out along with inov-8 RACEPANT waterproof trousers. I now felt less exposed in my battered state.
The climb to the col went better than expected and I was met by driving wind and snow as I came through the top. This was a bittersweet moment. There was no doubt in my mind with only 15km left that I was going to finish, but there was still a hard few hours to negotiate. And although people who have done the race in the past say this is the last climb, there was in fact another few bumps to get over. I had managed to follow the flags and not get lost for the last 95 hours, but as I got to the TMB trail and the finish was in touching distance, the flags suddenly became very scarce.
Sarah had just rang to warn me about going the wrong way after the two people ten minutes in front of me had missed the markers and ended up at Bonatti refuge, mistaking it for their intended target – Bertone refuge. I finally managed to confirm I was on the right path, with the help of TWO American hikers and made my way safely to the very last checkpoint. As I turned to begin my descent, Sarah was running towards me, shouting hysterically ‘yaaaay, you’re in 25th position, woooooohooooo, Tierney! 25th place in Tor des Geants, yaaaaay!’ I didn’t have the strength to laugh but it was quite amusing. Fed up with the act of putting one foot in front of the other, I now tried to put in a last big effort down the rocky, tree root strewn trail so I could just stop and not have to move anymore.
Around 35 minutes later I crossed the line in a rain soaked Courmayeur after 99 hours and 9 minutes on the go. I was happy, but probably too tired to really express it. I sat down near the speakers and big screen, got a beer off Joe and felt a very deep sense of satisfaction wash over me. No whooping and hollering needed. Just pizza, beer and a long sleep!
Tor des Geants was a race I never thought I’d want to do twice. It was a box to be ticked and then move on. Of course the inevitable has happened and I’m already thinking about next year!
* Paul Tierney is a running coach and sports massage therapist based in the Lake District. He and his partner Sarah McCormack run Missing Link Coaching. He has twice represented Ireland at the World Ultra Trail Championships and was the 2015 Lakeland 100 Mile race winner.