Written by Tegyn Angel - https://vfuelaustralia.com

Race Report: Tor Des Geants 2017

The following is what happens when your Trail Run Mag editor says “You’ve got a week to write 3000 polished words for publication” and your response is “well shit, I’d better write 7000 crappy words first just so I can get my thoughts in order.  AKA my shitty, unpolished, blow-by-blow, too-much-detail-to-bother-reading Tor des Geants Race Report.  Suffer in your jocks!

Sunday 10 September, 0900. Rock up at the start after a conservative breakfast of toast, fruit and decaf. Espresso, toilet. Drop bag. Get GPS turned on. To enter the start area, we stood in line for 30-40 mins, finally passing through the timing gantry where our chips were registered. This was it; there was no DNS for me. I slowly made my way toward the front of the lineup and found some folks I knew: Grant Maughan, Roger Hanney, Jean-Luc, Sandy Suckling.

Starting in approximately the first quarter, I knew the trail would take us through town for a few km and then quickly bog down into the single track climb toward the first col. I jostled for a decent spot and got into a rhythm, not wanting to get to held back but not overly concerned about the pace; focused more on conservation and efficiency of effort. Getting halfway up the first climb a group of Brits commented that, aside from the leader, I was the most relaxed person they’d seen thus far. Winning.

The climb transitioned from steep forested switchbacks to open alpine meadow, tracing a small creek-line up toward the head of a small valley. We crossed Col Arp (8.1km 2572m) and hit some long sweeping switchbacks that lead us down opposing valley. I got my first taste of Euro cheating, with about a dozen people rocketing straight off the course, ignoring the flags and straight-lining a significant section. I yelled out to the small group closest to me and they, at least, responded thankfully. I’d be tempted many times to cut directly between the marking flags used every 20 or so metres on course, but this was a blatant and obvious attempt to shortcut the course and ignore the ever-present markings. Disappointing.

The trail turned into road as we passed through a little checkpoint (Youlaz) and the switchbacks continued, though this time they were paved. At 13:14 I ran into La Thuille, the first major Checkpoint and the first place I’d see my crew. Crono time was 2:54, about 16 mins off my splits and only 18km into the race. I was moving well but the reality of having to do that climb another 20+ times had begun to sink in, and I’m pretty sure I was impatient with the girls. Sorry!

The trail continued to follow the road up the La Thuille valley, a relatively major thoroughfare and recreation area, before reaching La Joux where it returned to single track. I’d explored this area early with Dave Lipman and was excited to see the cascading waterfalls and high valleys again. I met a few folks on this climb and would end up crossing paths with them throughout the race: American’s Kevin Hadfield and Stephanie Case, and Aussie-Yank Gabriel Szerda (the latter two having been introduced to me indirectly via Michael Ormiston)

Climbing up past Refugio Deffeyes (27.2km 2500m) I refilled a water bottle and did some foot maintenance. Somehow I ended up with one thin (e.g. Steigen) sock on the left and double-sock or thicker sock combo on the right. I’ve never run like this before but kept this arrangement up for the remainder of the race. I’d allowed 1:50 from La Thuille to Deffeyes and arrived after 1:57, still bleeding time but not overly anxious about it.

From Deffeyes the trail winds up a boulder-strewn glacial side-valley before topping out at the 2857m Paso Alto, one of the highest points on the course. From here it boulder hops its way down to Promoud, losing 840m of hard-earn vert in under 4km. Dropping a further 50-60m, we crossed a small tributary and did an abrupt up-turn, crossing what, on paper at least, is the steepest climb of the entire route. From Promoud to Col Crosaties is 812m in 2.4km but given the initial descent, the reality is probably 870m in 2km. I’d memorised this climb from Nickademus’ race report and was excited both to see what all the fuss was about and also to put it well and truly behind me.

It didn’t disappoint! It started as a series of grassy switchbacks, passing through a meadow where I stopped with a Romanian guy to pick some wild Myrtille (Blue Berries). So good! I climbed for a while with Gabriel and then Kevin, both of them dropping me long before the top. As the gradient kicked up we left the grass and hit the slab, eventually finding rope hand lines and cables fixed to the precarious trail. The cheeky Cowbellier at the top sounded so close but was a hundred vertical metres still above, and an age seemed to pass before his enthusiastic bell thrusting finally deafened me.

Just off the summit, we encountered the first DropBox on the course; a glass and aluminium bivi box airlifted to the site as a backup, auxiliary aid station. They had some water and hot tea and were in for a long, cold night. Col Crosatie (35.8km 2829m) marked the third climb, and I was pretty chuffed to have ticked it off in daylight.

The descent from Crosatie passes through Lac du Fond and the memorial to the Chinese runner, Yang Yuan, who died here in the 2013 edition of the Tor. It’s a spooky place, but a very real reminder of how exposed the course can get. Kevin and I took a moment and continued.

Having now spent 107hrs on the course (and countless hours off course) looking at the Elevation Profile, I’ve come to appreciate its nuances. What may have seemed like a relatively flat or innocuous section from Planaval up to the first Life Base, Valgrisenche, was not flat. Running up the valley away from Planaval we skirted through village outposts that hugged a small creek. It seemed like almost an hour between when we first heard the PA system and when, just on dusk, we finally arrived at the Life Base.

I have to make a special mention to my crew here for being both patient and tolerant. The Life Bases take some understanding and the staff that manage them, particularly the earlier Bases, are very stubborn about how they want things to work. I wanted what I thought was straightforward; to grab some food then meet my crew and eat it while we sorted me out for the next leg. Unfortunately, the Life Base staff had different ideas.

Runners were allowed to enter the incredibly crowded, tiny meal space; but the crew weren’t. I grabbed some food and exited, heading toward the crew space. There was no water (hot or cold) available there, so I had to go back and grab some from the Meal Space. My crew couldn’t help me carry my drop bag so with food, hot water and drop bag in hand hobbled over to the crew space and was told I wasn’t allowed to eat my meal there. Gah. I spent some time with Kel (the only one allowed in the crew space) and fixed up my kit for the next leg, continuously explaining to the staff “yes, I will eat my food outside, in the cold, just let me fix my kit up please”. Finally, just as I was about to head off and eat my plate of now-cold pasta outside they relented and let me chuck it down. Makes sense…?
Outside it was already freezing. The following soon developed into a frustrating pattern that would stick with me for the rest of the race: I’d come into a checkpoint and spend some time there. In that time I would cool down. Leaving the CP, I would be so cold I’d have to rug up. Within 10 minutes I’d be stripping layers, having warmed up again. Normally I’d just ignore the cold for those few minutes, but it was so biting (or my thermoregulation was so compromised) that I simply couldn’t.

The climb out of Valgrisenche toward Col Fenetre (61.3km 2840m) started gradually, and I caught a few people who’d left the CP before me. Two-thirds of the way up I was surprised by a Refugio where I smashed some hot tea and jam biscuits. I met a few other people on this climb including a Malaysian guy and a couple of Swedes. I also gave some poor bloke some of my Caffeine; if he needed it this early, he was in trouble. The climb kicked pretty hard toward the end and descended in what I’d argue is the steepest descent of the race, dropping 1100m in about 3.5km. Fortunately, it was dry and switch-backed, so it was fairly easy going; had it been wet it would have been extremely hazardous, and rock fall from above was a constant concern.

The small town of Rhemes Notre Dame (65.6km) was a well-stocked CP, and I took the time to use the bathroom and do a little more foot and chafe maintenance, the latter beginning to show a few nasty signs. Col Entrelor was up next, and it was a beast, gaining 1250m over 5.7km and topping out at 3002m, the second highest point of the race. Looking back the way we’d come from atop the Col we could see a snake of headtorches dropping near-vertically down Col Fenetre; a spread-out, extreme version of the vision I’d have during UTMB a few years ago. It was comforting, both to know how many other people I was sharing the night with and also how far in front of them I was

In spite of all the measures I’d taken to maximise the battery life, my Suunto Spartan Ultra died at 16hrs 50. My Petzl Nao+ dimmed soon after that, and I reverted to my Ultraspire Lumen 600 for the rest of the descent into Eaux Rousse (81.4km) where I met my crew again. It was the middle of the night, and I was grateful to see them.

I tried a change of compression shorts to combat the ever-worsening chafe, topped up on Red Bull and VFuel and smashed some aid station savouries. I replaced my Petzl battery and grabbed a small battery pack to charge my watch on the run before diving back into the night and starting the nasty climb of Col Loson. Loson is the highest point of the Tor course at 3299m, and I found it to be the hardest climb bar none. Ascending a massive 1645m over 12.1km, it is also by far the longest climb, and I found it the most difficult.

Straight out of Eaux Rousse we started by ascending a series of switchbacks that hugged one side of a valley wall. It soon wrapped around the head of a large tributary which opened up into a high, alpine valley surrounded by vertical faces. In the pre-dawn light, we could see an imposing headwall, a maze of trails and a scattering of fading head torches. Pushing up toward the head of the valley we started to crack puddle ice, and the angle of the climb continued to turn upwards until we had to really work our hiking poles and high-knee each step. I called a few jerks out for cutting the course and the desire to stay in front of them buoyed me on. The sun was rising on the opposite side of Loson and it was bitterly cold, even as the Sun’s first rays lit up the eastern side of Col Entrelor, way across the valley. Just off the Col, there was a small Bivy where I stopped to de-layer in the now-blinding sun.

Chafe and saw about a dozen people pass me on the descent from Loson to Rifugio Sella and I started to fear the worst. If I was in this sort of state at 98km, there was no way I was going to make it back to Courmayeur. I stopped for a particularly thick coating of TriSlide at Sella and a trip to the loo and continued at a slow lope. The descent from Sella to the 2nd Life Base, Cogne, was gorgeous, crisscrossing a series of waterfalls and entering beautiful pine forest that shaded our descent into town. Somewhere here the chafe “Stars Aligned” and I was able to run again, catching up to Kevin and entering the town at a fair clip, about 45mins ahead of my splits and before my crew.

I called the girls and confirmed they were about 30mins off, so I grabbed a plate of pasta and half a glass of beer and headed for the showers. I didn’t have a change of clothes or any soap so did the best I could, redressing in the cleanest things I had and dropped to a cot for a quick nap. My mind was racing and, though I may have dozed, I wasn’t able to get to sleep. Noisy people chatting in the sleeping quarters didn’t help, and so 20 minutes later I got up, drowsy and frustrated rather than well-rested.

The girls had arrived while I dozed, and we got to prepping me for the next leg, a 45km section without crew assistance. I did a full clothing change, including my compression shorts in the hope this would keep the Chafe at bay. I smashed some Exogenous Ketones to blunt the blood sugar impact of the pasta and my recently-sculled Red Bull and hit the road feeling surprisingly good.

The next leg, from Cogne to Donnas via Rifugio Sogno, Fenetre di Champorcher and Chardonney was supposed to be fairly straight forward. A nice gradual climb toward the leg’s high point and then a relatively cruisy descent. I think these false expectations got the better of me and, despite feeling fantastic all the way through to Sogno (14.2km), this section probably set me up for a slower overall finish.

I met Bruno Brunod on my way through Goilles and he was sitting down, talking about withdrawing. While we had a quick chat, and I handed in a set of Crampons I’d found on the trail, someone handed me a Beer Nog, literally Beer and frothed egg. Apparently, it was for strength on the trail! I had a few sips and continued. It must have worked as I caught half a dozen people between there and Sogno. Then it must have faded; my climb up Champorcher was snail-paced, and for most of the descent from there to Chardonney I was in a bit of daze. I had my first properly wandering mind throughout this section and the hot, shadeless afternoon sun got the better of me. The Chafe was still distressing me, though I was somehow able to pick up the pace between Dondena and Chardonney.

At Chardonney I swapped my Compression Shorts for a pair of thin Nike tights (with virtually NO compression; this helped the Chafe all the way into Donnas and a little beyond before the friction just relocated thanks to a different seam pattern). Just after Chardonney I met up with Yen-Po, a Taiwanese runner with whom I’d spend a lot of the next 70 hours. We ran into Donnas together, navigating the random “mandatory” 300m ascent just before hitting Pont Boset. Once we hit the pavement, it was an infuriating 30-40mins of hiking through the streets of Pont Boset and then Bard before we finally hit the Life Base.

Yen-Po decided he would sleep here to prepare himself for the next climb, but I elected to eat, prep and run. I’d planned to sleep up at Refugio Coda, where I expected it would be quieter than Donnas. I was also nervous about the section from Coda through to Niel and wanted to hit it as fresh as possible, hence the nap immediately before.

The climb started well, catching up to and hiking with a few other runners, including Christof who’d completed UTMB a couple of weeks earlier (mad man). However, partway through the first half of the climb I got drowsy and was soon sleepwalking (not quite literally, but nearly). Yen-Po, rested and awake, soon caught me and we hiked together for a while before I woke up and realised my Chafe was back with all the aggression of a thwarted lover.

Desperate times called for desperate measures, so I lost the tights and went commando for the next few KMs. That worked for a while (it was the seams that were rubbing) but wasn’t enough. Something my crew said popped back into my head (“why don’t you just shove a THIR up your arse”) and I knew what I had to do! I folded two THIRs in half and pulled them up my legs to create a pair of Wonderland Run Crutchless Undies. This setup separated the bits from the inner thigh and VICTORY! By the time I got to Sassa and my crew I’d been chafeless for over an hour and knew with a bit of sports tape to hold the THIRs in place, I’d even be able to run. Kellie helped me with this bit of art, and I grabbed a few extra THIRs for more traditional uses before setting off on the second half of the climb to Coda.

While at Sassa I’d apologised to Kel for taking so long to get there and explained I’d been sleepwalking for an age. She asked if I wanted to sleep there and, stubbornly, I said no, explaining that I wanted to sleep at Coda instead. This was the second of two stupid mistakes surrounding sleep in the space of only a few hours, and I spent the second half of the climb sleepwalking yet again. It was only the frighteningly cold gale that was ripping across the final ridge up to Refugio Coda that woke me up.

Refugio Coda (169.3) marks the approximate halfway point of the race, but I was only interested in having a bite to eat and getting some sleep. I asked for 25mins and slept for 35 before I woke myself up, the Sleep Marshall having forgotten to do so. I bought a sludgy hot chocolate and ate a bit more food, further improving the setup of my THIR jocks by sliding some compression shorts over the top to keep them in place. Through careful placement and folding I may have also created a THIR posterior friction barrier, though if I did, I refuse to comment on which Trail Running group got the honour of protecting my butt for the next 200km It was still blowing a gale and freezing outside, so I rugged up and hit the pre-dawn light. My Ultrarunning Man Crush and go-to for all things Tor advice, Nickademus Hollon, had written in his 2014 race report that this “Hell Section” section was the nastiest of all and I was psyched to get it ticked off. The elevation profile made it look pretty straightforward, but that deceptiveness was part of what made it so demonic.

As it turns out, it wasn’t THAT bad. The worst part was how slow it was; for about 20 of the 23.6km between Coda and Niel the trail involved rock hopping and navigating your way through boulder fields. The occasional burst of icy-AF winds didn’t help the going, slow as it was, and even though I hit Refugio Balma (178km) ahead of my leg splits, 23.6km took me over 10hrs, a pace of 2.36km/hr or 25:40 min/km. The highlights of this section were: the new Refugio at La Balma (how I wanted to stop and spend some time here!), the World’s Best Cheesy Polenta porridge at Col Della Vecchia and the magic descent from there to Niel (192.0km; magic because of its ability to fit a few hundred metres of climbing into a 600m descent).

I met my crew at Niel, ate some Not the World’s Best Polenta, restocked for the relatively short leg through to Gressoney Life Base and hit the climb feeling reasonable. The relatively short 800m ascent to Col Lasoney was going well, and I passed or stuck with a handful of people until I started to drift off again. For the 3rd time, Kel had asked at the last CP if I wanted a nap and I’d declined (instead of sleeping at Gressoney), finding myself sleepwalking soon after. I probably lost 30mins on the descent, discovering I also had a weird cramp developing in the upper right quadrant of my abdomen. I ran as I could, passing through the world’s loudest checkpoint at Loo before a few people on my tail got the competitive juices flowing and brought me back to reality. I got to Gressoney (205.9km) pretty much smack on my splits in spite of my sleepwalking and was out of there 14mins later.

I met Yen Po here (I’d lost him at Coda) and as it turns out, he was being crewed by a friend of ours, Ruth Croft. He’d tried to sleep at the Life Base but hadn’t been able, and I encouraged him to come with me for to the next Refugio, Alpenzu, which was only 5km up the road. At 1/3 of the way up the next climb, I figured we could make the most of the remaining light and freshen ourselves up before hitting Col Pintor. He agreed, and we set off at a fast hike, paralleling the river along the bottom of the valley for a few km before hitting the switchbacks that led to the Refugio.

Yen Po was drowsy by the time we hit the Refugio and quickly laid down for a short nap. I spent more time eating and then followed suit, catching 30mins of restless sleep which I chased with a Hot Chocolate. The staff here were incredibly kind and made sure I was ready to go before heading back into the cold. I popped a No-Doz for good measure and thought I could take on the world. As it turned out, I think I had an adverse reaction to the Caffeine (it’s happened to me before), and despite starting strong, I was sleepwalking well before I hit the top of what seemed like a never-ending series of false summits and disappointment. Coming down the other side, a technical, exposed descent, while sleepwalking, was probably the most dangerous section of my Tor. I was too cold to stop and sleep on the trail (that and the fact that it’s expressly forbidden in the Race Rules) and so drifted on, stumbling and shuffling. I even dreamt that Roger Hanney and I were eating a Hamburger; maybe the first time I’d had a legit dream while “Sleep Walking”. I’ve no idea how much time I lost here, or in other periods of sleepwalking, but in hindsight it’s safe to say that by sleeping more and doing it pre-emptively, I could have avoided most of these situations. I believe my overall time would have been just as good, if not better, at much less risk to my safety.

I finally came-to just before Cuneaz, where I made the greatest mistake of my Tor. The food here was INCREDIBLE, yet I only picked at a few little bits thinking I’d eat more at Champoluc (where, it turns out, the food was complete rubbish). Croissants, Apple and Custard Tart, attentively-made espresso and all sorts of other delicacies awaited. I even commented to the host that it was the best restaurant I had ever seen, not just on the Tor, but on Earth, yet I still just grazed. What an idiot, obviously intellectually compromised.

I did, however, find Yen Po here and we continued to Champoluc together. He was now complaining of pain on descending, and I kept my pace down so we could stay together. We both slept at Champoluc where Ruth and the rest of his crew awaited (Kel and the girls skipped this one). I was feeling pretty glum at my nighttime wanderings, and it was bitingly cold, so I was pretty keen to face this next section with someone else. I waited for Yen Po who slept a little longer than I did and we left for Refugio Grand Tourmalin together.

The Sun rose allowed us to kill our head torches about an hour later, though it didn’t hit us until well after that. We slept for another ten minutes at Tourmalin and ordered coffee. Yen Po was stuffing around, and so I left at a hike, waiting for him to catch up while I moved on. He caught me as I passed through Col di Nana and headed for Col des Fontaines and I didn’t see him again for some time. The descent from Col des Fontaines to Valtournenche (239km) seemed interminable, but crossing below 100km to go was an exciting moment. Less than two marathons haha.

At 35km the leg from Valtournenche to Oyace was one of the longest without crew support and took 12hrs 45, or about an hour longer than predicted. That said, this section also marked a turning point in my approach to the race thanks to another runner, Neil Bryant, who explained that he’d not had a single episode of Sleep Walking. He was sleeping aggressively and bursting out of checkpoints rested, and speedy relative to those of us who were taking the “Sleep is Weak” approach.

I took his advice and slept 30mins at the beautiful Refugio de la Magia, before continuing the climb on to Refugio Cuney, Bivacco Clermont and Col Vessona. I finally caught up with Yen Po again at Vessona and he, along with Neil and I, climbed up Vessona and bombed down the other side. Neil smashed this section, and I didn’t see him again for hours while Yen Po was struggling with foot or knee pain and so took it fairly easy. Part of the way down from the Col I caught up with a runner who was being illegally paced and ran with them for a while before letting them run into Oyace ahead of me.

In spite of my new-found appreciation for sleep, Oyace was one of the lowest points in my race. After a change of clothes and socks and a good feed, I asked Kel for 40mins of sleep. I tried to get her to leave, knowing how long she and the girls had been awake, but to no avail. She waited for me and then gave me another 10minutes when I begged; the only time I overslept throughout the Tor. When I finally left Oyace I was in good spirits and committed to nailing the next section; 1150m ascent and 1100m descent over 12.8km.

The wind at Bruson l’arp was intense, tearing the aid station apart, and I moved on toward Col Bruson as quickly as possible. The descent was extremely technical with lots of high steps and loose rocks next to a significant drop. I hated to think how things would deteriorate when the forecast rain arrived and continued. Once I finally hit fire trail, I found it littered with loose fist-sized rocks and this, together with my gut cramp, made it very difficult to run. In spite of this, I still beat my leg splits and came into Ollomont (287.2km) ready to eat, sleep and repeat.

Kel and the crew were there waiting for me, and I asked for a bowl of veggie soup to which I added Tamari Almonds and powdered Bone Broth; doubtless one of the best meals of the race. I slept for 30mins (Yen Po was also recently arrived and did the same) and then took advantage of the massage service. The masseuse’ name was Paolo, without question one of the coolest cats I’ve ever met and indubitably a Witch Doctor of high esteem.

I explained to Paolo I had some pain at the very head of my VMO and he proceeded to work on my calf and get me to flex or resist in all sorts of ways. He noted the external rotation of my feet was asymmetrical and got to work on that. “If I’m pressing too hard you must say Paolo; please stop.” At one point I grunted in pain, and he reprimanded me, reminding me that “Urrrgh is not my name. My name is Paolo and only Paolo”. Funny dude!

As I was getting off the table, we asked him to translate the dosage on the packet of Charcoal tabs Deb had found for me. He asked why and we described my cramp. He invited me to lay back down on the table and did another handful of witch doctor tricks. Within minutes I raced to the bathroom and conducted my very own symphony de gas, relieving about 90% of the cramp for the remainder of the race. Paolo, whoever you were, you Sir, are a legend.

The climb out of Ollomont was steep but constant, 1000m vert in 4.8km, and inspired my Chart Topping hit, “A Vertical Km for Breakfast”. With my iPod back at Ollomont I used my phone to play some music for a while, bopping out to AB Original and Dr Dre’s the Chronic before I got nervous about my battery life and decided to lay down my own beats. I came into Refugio Champillon in good spirits, knocked back a Macchiato and some food, pack-exploded out of fear that I’d left my Mandatory over-mitts back with Kel in Ollomont, and then proceeded into the sleet with Neil.

We topped Col Champillon and dropped down to Ponteille Desot together. The elevation profile for this section drops sharply as far as Desot and the descends very gradually all the way to Bosses on what is perhaps the most gentle gradient of the entire race. Neil had heard it was 16km of road and so we set about preparing ourselves for some actual “running”. As it turned out, the single-track descent to Desot was frustratingly technical and the following “runnable descent” turned into many kms of slightly uphill Douche Grade followed by sections of descent and thickening rain. I came into the Bosses checkpoint well behind Neil, slightly in front of Yen Po, and thoroughly pissed off. In spite of having put my poles away and got some decent running in, the cramped, claustrophobic aid station, cigarette-smoking marshalls, freezing rain, high winds and the knowledge I still had 30km to go caused me to have a bit of a tantrum. I eventually got changed, ate some food, prepared myself for the next leg and hit the road, well behind Neil and Yen Po.

I was cold, but I expected I’d warm up soon enough. The Rain turned horizontal, the Merdeux checkpoint I expected failed to exist, and I got nervous about my temperature. I saw a few runners in front of me which I thought may have been Neil or Yen Po and so I legged it. The rain turned to snow as we climbed and I got nervous, both about my borderline body temperature and the possibility they might restrict our crossing of the final Col, the 2936m Malatra.

Coming into Refugio Frassati (317.4km, 2537m) I was wide-eyed and running on adrenaline. Neil and Yen Po were here, and so was Stephanie, the latter wrapped in a space blanket and looking like she’d been here a while. I suggested to our little band that it’d be a good idea to cross the Col together and that we should do it ASAP lest the marshals stop us from going any further. Everyone agreed and so after a few coffees and food we put on our crampons and set out. Yen Po decided to go it alone and left about 5 minutes before us.

Stephanie soon explained she’d been in 3rd when she’d taken a fall. She’d been held at Refugio Frassati for what must have seemed like ages, the Doctors worried that the fluid in her leg might move to her lungs (or brain?). She’d been allowed to go with a group and so joined our little family. Or at least I thought it was a family. We stayed together as far as the incredibly-awesome, snow-covered Col Malatra, where I stopped to take some photos. Popping over the other side, I saw everyone had hit the sprints the moment we cleared the snow and moved into the sun; some family!

I trotted down behind them, stopping a few times to remove layers and crampons before hitting a small bivvy further down the valley. There was an evacuation going on here, some poor dude having broken his leg 320km in! I caught up with Yen Po and we climbed the into the final small Col together. I’d waited for him while he filmed the Helicopter picking up the casualty and so was surprised when he was reluctant to wait 30 seconds while I removed my overpants. He explained that he wanted to spend some final moments “alone” and so I let it be, assuming he’d cruise down the other side and that I’d catch him shortly and we’d finish together. I took it easy, cruising with Stephanie for a little while before I realised Yen Po had done a runner.

I put my poles away, smashed a gel and a Revvies strip and started to run. I’d wanted to enjoy the last 15km or so, getting it done but not belittling the experience by “racing” for the sake of a few minutes. I’d waited for this bloke probably half a dozen times and every chance he’d got he’d bailed on me. This was the last straw, and the combination of sugar, caffeine, delirium and self-righteous anger got the better of me. Now I was pissed off. It was time to RUN. I didn’t want the bastard to beat me with this sneaky shit. I’d seen him move, particularly down hills, and I thought I could nail him.

Things were going very well. I was moving better than I had all race, no sign whatsoever of 320km of fatigue. At one point I went a few minutes without seeing a trail marker and got so nervous, I turned around, retracing my steps before I ran back into Stephanie who confirmed I was on the right path. I pushed on, back to running, passed a few people and let myself descend into breathe-stride-breathe-stride-swear-breathe. I passed a couple of people, and somewhere around Refugio Bertone, my Beast Mode started to fade. I hadn’t caught him and was still being told I had 90minutes to Courmayeur.

I dialled it back, a bit concerned at my mental state; that I’d pushed so hard and let my brain run away with its delirious thoughts so close to the finish. I ran through Bertone, stopping only to get my race number recorded, and hit the switchbacks that descend to Courmayeur. I passed another person but otherwise kept the reins on it until I hit the pavement. There were two more poorly marked decision points here that caused me to stop and retrace my steps and then I finally hit the outer streets of Courmayeur and started to bolt again. I caught up to the guy that I’d endured the earlier snow storm with, and we jogged together for a while. I still had a bit of fire in my belly, and after it became apparent he was happy to jog it in I started running again. I crossed the finish line at 21:07 on Thursday the 14th of September, 2017, 106 hours and 47 minutes after I started and 1:40 behind Yen Po.

My furthest run before Tor des Geants was UTMB at 170km. My longest run was about 33hrs 30minutes, at my first 100 miler, the Northburn 100. Yet I pulled up remarkably well. I had one matchstick sized blister on the top of one big toe; I retained all my toenails and, at least physically, I’m ready to get back into training. I think the relatively modest pace of a 200miler means you pull up less sore than after a hard 100km or 100miler.

Emotionally I’m very content and, perhaps the biggest win, have realised that there are no races on Earth (maybe except something like Iditarod or Barkley) that “scare” me. That’s not to say that I don’t respect them, but that’s different from fearing them.

Of course, I couldn’t have gotten where I did without the support of some critically important people.

Firstly, my fiancé and head crew member, Kellie Emmerson. So soon after UTMB you stepped up and carried the baton. You did so damn well, navigating the mountainous roads and my biblical spreadsheet, caring for me, depriving yourself on all levels. Without you, I’d have been lost.

Secondly, Deb Sharp and Sky Meredith, in supporting Kel you went so far above and beyond the call of duty that I can’t begin to acknowledge or thank you enough.

Thirdly, my Endurance coach, Katee Gray of Holistic Endurance. I chose to work with you because we’re on the same page. You were a Tri coach first and foremost, yet your philosophy and approach were so similar to mine that I knew we could make it work. Without an athlete that believes in the coach, you have nothing, and this we had in abundance. You brought a high degree of professionalism to the table but without any hint of arrogance; you took my trail experience and integrated beautifully with your areas of expertise, going well beyond the usual expectations of a “trail running” coach.

Fourthly, my Strength Coach, David Lipman. I chose to work with you – and you said yes – because we share so much in common. Coffee nerds, body hacking geeks, nerds in general. You analysed my needs and wrote an excellent program yet did so in such a way as to support, not undermine, Katee. You recognised that I was training for a running race and so my focus should be on the programming of my running and endurance coach; that a strength program should support that. Cheers mate.

Finally, to Nickademus Hollon and everyone else who so selflessly offered me support and advice along the way. Thank you! Mike and the team at Nunawading Soft Tissue Therapies, Inov-8 and Barefoot Inc. Australia, Stephanie Case, Michael Ormiston, Chris Ord & Trail Run Mag, Matt Bell, Simon Ferraro, Matt Meckenstock, THIR Australia, VFuel Australia, Sean and Melanie Greenhill and the Buffalo Stampede, Derek Prentice and Peaks & Trails, Jo Brischetto and Ultra-Trail Australia, Anthony Thompson and the Kokoda Ultra Marathon, Keith Hong and RunNation Film Festival, Matt Murphy, Rohan Armstrong, Mark, Ash, Karen, Ian and Caroline.

Suggestions for next time (in no particular order):
1. Decrease crew dependency by removing all crew visits to Life Bases = decrease time spent in checkpoints, decrease faffing around, decrease concern for crew wellbeing, increase dependency on Aid Station food and resources. Simplify spreadsheet for crew.

2. Improve suitability of Pack e.g. UD Fastpack vs. Salomon 12 Set. A more “open”, slightly larger pack would have saved me a lot of “stuffing around” time and made packing and repacking at aid stations significantly easier. While the 12 “just” had enough capacity, a few extra litres of space would have made the process more efficient.

3. Less dependence on own savoury food. In future just take gels, vfuel drink, caffeine, FASTCHEWS, Exo Ketones, SOS, bone broth and almonds and maybe Vespa. Rely on aid stations for everything else (cheese, meat, beer, pasta, tea, coffee, polenta). No bars, no meat bars, no MCTs etc and probably less of everything.

4. Sunscreen was fine

5. Better waterproof gloves. The heavy mittens I had were great, but fiddly and excessive. The Montane Windproof gloves were crap.

6. Take better care of your neck in terms of sun protection

7. Take a better med kit (e.g. GasEze, Charcoal)

8. Chafe prevention measures. You know what I mean.

9. You put your poles away for 15km out of 338. Don’t worry about planning for this. The time to take your pack off and stow them was nothing.

10. At the pace of the Tor, the Petzl Nao+ was brilliant. Take a lighter, smaller auxiliary light.

11. Take more photos.

12. Compose more songs.

13. Recce more of the course.

14. Don’t use a Suunto watch.

15. Inov-8 TrailTalon 250s were fantastic. You used a size 44 until Cogne and then a 44.5 thereafter. This worked well but something slightly more aggressive would may have been appreciated.

16. Gaiters were great

17. Calf Sleeves created funny pinch points around your ankles and below your knees. Consider Compression Socks in future.

18. A jacket large enough to go over your pack was handy

19. Your modified sleeveless wind jacket was awesome with your OR Echo-Duo Longsleeve T-shirt. These over your T-Shirt is all you wore on the first night, along with 2XU gloves and Raidlight over-gloves

20. Taking money to buy espresso along the way was a good idea.

21. Sleep aggressively. Avoid ALL “walking dead” moments. If you’re starting to feel sleepy, sleep at the next possible location

22. Caffeine sensitisation, for the purpose of staying away during the race, was a complete waste of time. In a race of this length, where the fatigue is this strong, caffeine barely touches the sides. Sleep is the only means of staying awake. It may have been beneficial as a way of ensuring improved sleep in the lead up, but this could probably be achieved by reducing caffeine to one coffee early in the day rather than completely eliminating it.

23. Training was very effective and event selection (particularly Kokoda and Double Buffalo), but definitely introducing more long, constant-tempo hikes would have helped. E.g. Donna Buang, 8 mile spur, Klingsporn etc. Weight training was very suitable.

24. Pedicure (i.e. callous grinding) a few weeks pre-race helpful. Better toe nail prep may have been beneficial.

25. Gear selection was great. However, the extra few grams that a thicker micro-fleece would have contributed, in light of being very cold on the 2nd night, would have been justified. Likewise gloves as per above notes.

26. THIRs were a lifesaver. You brought 6, next time bring 12. Chafe prevention, sun protection, warmth around the neck, as a face mask to pre-warm your breath etc.

27. Don’t ever drop your TP at an aid station “because I haven’t needed them yet”

28. Where possible tag along with other runners. If you share your low moments with runners who are presently moving better than you, your overall average time will be much slower. Extrinsic motivation to move at a marginally faster pace cannot be underestimated in a race of this length.

29. Don’t underestimate the value of anger and frustration to get you moving.

30. Music highly valuable, even though you only listened to it briefly.

31. Always carry a few extra essentials (salt tabs, caffeine). The ability to give these to other runners has an emotional benefit that is very valuable.

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