Lesson 1 – Break the route down into manageable chunks
Above is a picture of the route elevation profile. It says 2021, but I did the race in 2022; the website just took a long time to update with 2022 info. I used open source maps to estimate the climbs; they may be wrong! I then broke the route down into 7 stages, based on the life bases, using coloured pencils. The life bases are roughly 50km apart (7x 50km does not equal 330km, but then the Tor is not 330km, it seems they just use 330 as a name). At the life base they give access to a drop bag which can have a change of clothes, spare shoes, food etc. It is the same drop bag at each life base and is size limited (they provide the bag). Each of the 7 stages has check points along the way that provide food and water. The food and water is pretty much always the same, i.e. water, coke, soup, fruit juice, ham, cheese, bread & fruit. These check points are roughly every 5-10km apart, but the gap can be much bigger, the biggest being 16.5km. They have a spreadsheet for showing these.
During the race I started by just remembering the number of climbs in the stage. This worked until stage 4, which looks simple enough, but took ages to complete time wise. I did what seemed like the longest 6km stretch between check points, only to do the next 6km, or so, that took even longer. Anyhow I was just working on getting to the next check point. It is worth noting where these are longer, or have big climbs, to avoid running out of water etc. I did make the mistake of not filling my bottles up at one check point as they had been so frequent, that I was hardly drinking anything, only for the next leg to involve a sizable climb. Fortunately I was able to use a gel to save energy levels dropping very low and going really slow.
Lesson 2 – It will not all feel easy
Unsurprisingly it will not all feel easy. Motivation will be tested. I reminded myself I had paid €600 for the ‘privilege’ of doing this race. Also I had been wearing the TorX T-shirt pre-race as they sent me one in 2020. I did start to feel sick on stage 2. I was struggling to find food that felt like it was actually being digested. I sat around after the first hill climb of stage 2 wondering if I should sleep. They say not to retire before first having a sleep. I didn’t actually resort to having a sleep as I wasn’t at the retire stage, but I was struggling with my nutrition which can also be helped by sleeping. I carried on and did the second climb. It went ok, but I certainly wasn’t moving faster than the people around me anymore. I had started in wave 2, as my ITRA score was zero due to only racing in the UK for the past few years, so I spent all of stage 1 overtaking people. By the third climb of stage 2 it came to a head and I vomited soon after leaving the food stop. I thought I’d solved my nutrition problem by eating fruit, then realised I hadn’t. This was like a reset though. I was told by a sailor on the Three Peaks Yacht race, when I threw up there coming into port, that there is a golden half hour after throwing up where food could be eaten again with no repeat issues. I tested this again and it worked out. I was still slow up the third climb of the stage, being overtaken by two people. They were the only two people to overtake me in the whole race I think.
Lesson 3 – Do take your time
For stages 1, 2 and 3, I went through ok. I ran downhill by feel and ignored the advice to go slower to save my legs. Uphill I looked out of place with no sticks, but it made overtaking easier. I did have sticks in my drop bag should I need them (it turned out I didn’t). Towards the end of leg 4, having passed halfway and starting a long hill climb to what I thought must finally be Gressoney, I broke my radio silence and texted Rory Harris back in the UK. I had been expecting to be at Gressoney for ages, but the next food stop kept just being a random place, with another 5-6km to the next food stop. Rory told me I was 15th and, “2hrs behind Sabs [Sabrina Verjee], 5hrs behind Hall [Damian].” I felt I must be staying too long at the CPs to eat and drink but Rory told me to stick with that as it was working and remember the long goal was to finish.
Lesson 4 – Sleep
I did stages 1, 2 and 3 with no real sleep. I had tried closing my eyes a few times, but not serious attempts to sleep. Towards the end of stage 3, on the long, long, descent to Donnas, I started having hallucinations. It was around early afternoon, so not the normal time for the eyes/mind to play tricks. They were minor hallucinations, like seeing a person just outside the woods, only for it to turn out to just be a rock. Anyhow I took this as a sign to sleep. In retrospect Donnas is perhaps not the best place to sleep as it is very warm, but it did mean that it was cooler when I left Donnas making for a pleasant climb (lots of climbs actually ). I planned 3 hours sleep, but reduced it to 2 as it was so noisy. My sleep method was to set my phone alarm 2 hours in the future then close my eyes, and try and keep them closed, until the alarm woke me.
I don’t recall anymore hallucination issues post Donnas. Déjà vu was the next sign of sleep deprivation. I had not heard of this before. I met Sophie Woods/Grant at the first food stop after Gressoney. I explained I had been here before and it was confusing me. She then came out with the bombshell revelation that déjà vu is a classic symptom of sleep deprivation; who knew! Also I had not been there before, but the déjà vu got worse. By the end of stage 5 I was sure I’d seen that same chamois eating the grass by the stone ruin before; and I already knew which way the path went. The life base at Valtournenche (end of stage 5) was quiet. Rory told me both Hall and Sabs had only spent 30 mins at the life base! I decided not to follow their lead and went for a 1 hour sleep using the alarm technique mentioned before. It worked as by daylight the next morning I had caught Hall.
Lesson 5 – I can be competitive at long races, even with all the sleep
I may have given this one away in the previous lesson learnt on sleep. On the way into Oyace I was surprised to meet Damian Hall, with his support man Paul Booth (a nutritionist). He was effectively near 2 hours behind me, although he was going out of the food stop at Oyace and I had yet to go in. I was in a confused state as at the bottom of the hill before Oyace there were red and white arrows pointing in opposite directions, with yellow Tor markers in short supply. I assumed I had gone the wrong way. On looking at my phone I kind of confirmed that as I was off the GPX track. I backtracked only to find the GPX track went up a path with red tape across it. Annoyingly I had to go back on what I had initially thought was the wrong path. Luckily a man came down the hill and told me Oyace was not far. He described the route and said I would be at the CP in 15 minutes.
Damian looked like he was resigned to a death march to the finish. He had fallen from the top 3 to 10th. I set out to catch him, with a little stop and self-sabotage thrown in (lesson 6). I never did pass Damian as he further compounded his death march by going off trail and doing an extra hill; but still managed to finish 14th somehow.
Lesson 6 – They tape feet differently in Italy
I changed my socks after two stages only to find my feet were fine. The new socks caused minor issues to Donnas, but I was able to shower and rest there; and change socks back to the style that worked well on stages 1 and 2. The problem was that I only had two pairs of my new favourite style of sock. The next change came at the end of stage 5. I tried to dry my socks while sleeping, but did pick up heel blisters on stage 6. This may have been due to the rain which was persistent throughout the night, and into the morning, when I reached the final life base in Ollomont, or just because I did not have the laces tight enough.
The heel blisters only really caused irritation on descents. I knew I only had two hill descents left and the last one was a write-off as I'd smash my feet to bits with the end in sight as I wouldn’t need to save my feet. I stopped at the life base however as they say it is best to attend to the blisters before they become a big problem. When I took my socks off I saw the blisters were tiny. As I'd already got the medic there I continued with the process of getting my feet attended to, even when it involved washing my feet in a toilet; bidets are very popular in northern Italy I learnt, as are squat toilets. I did not however see the issues that would arise from getting my feet taped in an unfamiliar way. They tape feet differently in Italy! While I dozed my toes and full forefoot got taped as well as the heels. The medic described it as now having two socks on each foot.
The tape used had no stretch and did not allow much foot movement. I set off for the final stage with my newly taped feet, but not before instigated my own bit of self-sabotage I’d thought up while my feet were getting taped. It had been raining for hours and looked set to continue. I put in an additional warm coat and changed my t-shirt to a long sleeved base layer. I then took out the sunhat and sunglasses as I thought I wouldn’t need them again. The sun came out before the top of the first climb of the final stage, so I had to use a buff as a hat to protect the top of my head.
It was near the top of the final big climb I finally concluded the tape job had actually numbed my feet and made walking really hard. It may perhaps be a super technique, but once I sat on a rock, and removed the tape from the forefoot (I left the heel tape on), I was very pleased to discover I could jog as I started to feel my toes again. I initially made loud pained sounds as I walked up to the col which may have confused the camera crew waiting there. I then ran well (I felt I was moving fast and wasn’t wearing a watch to tell me otherwise) and was enjoying it all the way to the finish...just a pity that it took 20k for me to realise my feet were numb because of the tape. I even outran a Dret (130km race) runner who was in third place I think. I didn’t quite catch Sabrina, but I did get 6th spot and 5th man. This meant I got a yellow clog as the Tor des Géants podium is for the top 5 male and top 5 female runners.
Most of my kit is old, so cannot be purchased, but for those interested, read on.
• Rohn cap with neck cowl that I fail to make look stylish. Replaced with buff
• Julbo Aerospeed Sunglasses with Reactiv lenses
• Icebreaker cool-lite T-shirt. Swapped to TNF long sleeved base layer at last life base
• Western states white arm sleeves
• Runderwear merino briefs
• Old Adidas shorts with liner cut out as worn out
o Stages 1,2, 4,5 and 6 = Hilly twin skin socks
o Stage 3 = Bridgedale wool T2 socks
o Stage 7 = Teko Enduro Merino socks
• Salomon Sense Ride 3. They only cost £42 at Salomon shop. When I tried them on they fitted well even though half a size bigger than I would normally wear. I had Altra Lone Peak 6 as backup, but on trying them out in Chamonix I found they were perhaps half a size too small. To be fair the shop assistant at Runners Hub, Heswall, did suggest I went up half a size, but they already felt like slippers.
Backpack = Raidlight Responsiv 18l version 1. It has one zippered pocket inside the pack, but is generally easily accessible stuff storage. I did add two short bungie cords on the lower front pockets, between pocket centres and pole carriers, to stop items jumping out.
• Two foil blankets
• Sliva Ranger head torch with spare AA battery.
• Silva Pave head torch with spare battery. I have two Paves and three batteries. I found at Donnas that the outer black insulation was cracked and broken on all of them making them unsuitable for use in the rain. I switched to Exposure Lights HT1000 which seemed to work better in that main battery lasted all night. The Silva Pave battery had failed on the last climb of stage 2, but as the moon was so bright I realised I did not need a head torch; plus by the time I reached the top the sun came up.
• Montane 777 coat. Swapped to dry Mountain Equipment Impellor jacket at last life base
• OMM waterproof over trousers (never used)
• Mountain Hardware fleece gilet (i.e. fleece with no arms). I find it useful as I put it on over my waterproof coat if I feel cold.
• Buffalo mitts
• Wool hat from Peru
• Wallet and passport
• Phone in an Aquasac waterproof case. Came in useful when needed for navigation where cows had eaten all the yellow Tor markers. I had paid for open source maps with contour lines which helped a bit (more so pre-race).
• 3x 600ml water bottles. Only ever filled two. I found the extra volume helped, when compared against using standard 500ml flasks.
• Gel, pack of Shot Blocs and pack of Fishermans Friends
• Mountain Fuel drinks powder. I only actually used once on Stage 1. I did use some from my drop bag at life bases for one bottle.
I was not counting calories. I ate and drank to feel. As I never carried much food I mostly drank for energy and ate at the regular food stops.
• Stage 1:
o Mountain Fuel powder + water. Topped up Mountain Fuel once, then switched to coke for speed. It was perhaps too early for coke, but it was easier.
o Ate just bits of ham and cheese at food stops.
o Had pasta at the life space. I spent an age trying to eat it. I suspect I was dehydrated.
• Stage 2:
o Mountain Fuel powder + water. Used coke + water at top ups.
o Tried soup, but it didn’t sit well; it seemed like mostly pasta and salt.
o Fisherman’s friends helped in trying to settle my stomach, but ultimately failed.
o Orange slice and dried fruit. Felt great at first and then I threw up. I never touched the fruit after that incident.
• Stage 3:
o Mountain Fuel powder + water. Used coke + water at top ups.
o Pre-package croissant at life base + sparkling water (accidental, but I became addicted to the sparkling water and requested it at each food stop after that)
o Ham, cheese and bread at food stops
• Stages 4, 5, 6 and 7 followed the above. I tried the odd boiled egg at the life bases and some fruit juice. At the last few food stops I grew tired of coke and moved onto coffee. I also ate the pre-packaged biscuits. These required 4-5 cups of tea to eat as they were very dry.
• In total I ate two Mountain Fuel gels and a pack of shot blocs.
• Heel blisters
• Small forefoot blisters, but never noticed them in race
• Minor chaffing. Would be annoying at times, but then be forgotten
• Sore mouth. The coke diet and not brushing my teeth led to cracked lips and mouth ulcers by the end. I was trying to stop my lips from getting sunburnt, but it seems I failed. It took a few days for the mouth to feel normal. Ice cream helped.
• Longest lasting (not really noted in the race aside from the taping incident) was that my toes felt numb. Apparently this is a result of nerve damage. This lasted weeks and is apparently affectionately known as Tor toes.
Photograph of me holding the clog by Andy Humphrey. Rest of photographs by me.