Where do you start with a blog about the Tor des Geants? The end seems as good a place as any. It’s marketed as the longest ultra trail in the world, at 330km with +24,000m height gain. This year was its 6th edition, and due to horrific weather the whole race was terminated when I’d run 222.5km with c.+16,000m vertical. All us survivors who had reached or passed the 200km point of Gresonney Saint Jean, were declared ‘finishers’, hence the all important jacket in the photo above.
It’s two months since the race, and I’ve had a long while to ponder if I feel like I was cheated by the weather, or if I had a great time anyway. Initially I felt the former, as though the carpet had been pulled from beneath me, but it was the right decision and I’m delighted and proud to have been involved in this amazing event. It is the furthest I’ve ever raced before, and I had no major issues, and yet learnt a huge amount about myself and race technique.
I look on people who tell me they’ve had a ‘life changing’ experience, with the usual amount of cynicism I feel it normally deserves, so I won’t attempt to classify my Tor des Geants (TDG) experience as one of those, though it comes as close to it as I dare go. There is something verging on spiritual about the connection you feel with the landscape, partially as a reaction to sleep deprivation, physical fatigue, sensory overload, and mental stress. I’ve run the UTMB series races 5 times so far, and the maximum number of nights running is two in a row. The TDG promised up to six nights out, with a maximum running time of 150 hours.
The TDG makes a huge loop of the Aosta valley in northern Italy, and visits the four main mountain massifs that form its borders; the Mont Blanc, Gran Paradiso, Monte Rosa and Matterhorn. The mountains are steeped in history, and when you are running for 150 hours, there’s plenty of time to consider the first attempts on the peaks and passes you cross during the race. There’s all too much time to consider the tragedies and disasters too, none more so than when running past the memorial to Chinese runner Yuan Yang who died in a freak accident in the 2013 TDG when falling after Colle Crosatie.
Right from the start this race had a different atmosphere from many long distance running events, such as the UTMB. There was less manic start line hype, which always soon fizzles out leaving runners feeling flat a few minutes into the trail, and more of a feeling of a group of people who really knew what they were doing, meeting to get something done. The photo above as we crossed the start line doesn’t show overly energetic faces, desperate for the off, but a determined and focused bunch.
I think it was that realisation that we largely weren’t in a race against each other, but with ourselves surviving with quite tough conditions, as we crossed mountain range after mountain range, days blurring with nights. The length of this race allowed plenty of time for introspection, which was probably the reason so many people dropped out, rather than injury. It would be all to easy to let the scale of the event challenge get to you, and the way I dealt with it was purely to focus on reaching the next checkpoint. Even saying that, each life-base (aid station) was over a marathon distance apart, so was a ultra-distance in its own right.
Try as I might, and many will be relieved that I’m not, I can’t provide a step by step description of this race, as many sections blur into one another. I have a whole kaleidoscope of memories, that come tumbling through my mind still, whenever I think back to the race; ice plastering the mountain over Col Entrelor, a friendly hut guardian at Lago Vargno, a girl getting me soup at Rifugio Coda, stepping on a snake at Perloz, running fast on the descent into Cogne, and evening on Col Pintner. Even as I write this list, they trigger hundreds of other snapshots.
When I signed up for the race, I remember reading that an ancillary aim of the event was to promote the Val d’Aosta region. At first I was sceptical of this, massively so. We were only 800 runners, so how would it be worth or possible to promote the region to us? I was wrong on two counts; firstly it was wrong to be introverted as the event has over 2000 volunteers and marshals involved, as well as everyones friends and families who came too, so the direct reach was in its thousands. Secondly, every runner had a unique and detailed experience of the region, and everyone I have spoken to about the TDG said it affected them deeply. I suppose this blog is my promotion of a landscape that I fell in love with.
Nothing can prepare you properly for the variety of landscapes that the TDG offers, and it felt like I was running through the pages of a National Geographic magazine; huge plunging waterfalls, swaying bridges, weathered faces, Roman roads, wild flowers, and snow plastered mountain ranges. As the days merge, you are immersed deeper and deeper into the landscape, and slowly open your eyes to what makes it so unique; a depth of history clashes with the immediacy of subsistence upland farming living, the warmth of the welcomes of the local people and the pride they have in their region is inspiring, and when you think the views can’t get any better, your jaw hits the floor once again.
What summaries this region is how genuine every aspect of the race was; the rugged mountains, cultural legacy, amazing food, and ancient trails. This interplay is continually amazing, and marks out this race as a unique experience. As the organisers write, the route follows “the high-elevation arteries that make the great heart of Val d’Aosta beat”. Flowery writing, and very passionate Italian writing? Yes. True? Yes too.
When running the Tor, there are six life-bases on the course, with roughly 50km between each one. At the life-base there is a huge choice of hot foods, as well as showers and beds. I’d never run a race before where I had slept on the route, so the life-base was an alien concept. Normally aid stations are an opportunity to grab some essentials, and push on. I’d talked to Alain Desez, a friend and multiple times TDG finisher, and his advice was to run slower than I planned to, and to minimise sleep each day to between 1.5 and 2 hours.
The advice was perfect. Every time I felt I was pushing too hard, I throttled back. Every step I focused on shortening the stride, and minimising the impact. Every pain I felt, I tried to adapt technique to use another part of my body to compensate or transition to. The TDG will break even the best runners, if they think they can beat it. What makes you finish is to achieve the fine balance between listening to your body to gain efficiency and comfort, whilst not listening to the logical devils telling you to stop or that it hurts too much.
When the race was cancelled due to vile weather, I’d reached the village of Saint-Jacques. As I was scanned at the check-point, they told me the race was on hold due to visibility of less than 1 meter on the mountain ahead. I’d been running for the past day with a guy who was a member of the French foreign legion in Guiana. As we pushed up over each mountain, he muttered ‘tout au bout’ (until the end). We supported each others though our wobbles, my low point being cramped and knees on fire beneath a hut table at Neil. After a brief sleep we sat in the check-point room at Saint-Jacques, and listened to the radio crackle with urgent voices. The race was cancelled. I stared at my feet, tears flowed, and I felt winded and hollow.
As I looked around the small wood panelled room, in an instant I knew what the Tor was about. Others were crying, some stared into the distance, and a few begged the race staff for further information. The unifying thing that the Tor provided was emotion; our emotional connection with the mountains, each other, and those who supported us both during the race and at home. Emotion was bare and raw at that moment, and it gave a brief insight into what we all had shared.
In a strange way, running the Tor did not feel like an endurance event at any time, more a way of life. Bizarre as it sounds, you are kept busy all the time; looking for the next yellow marker flag, taking a sip of water, checking the altimeter, reaching an aid station, getting the race chip scanned, eating food, remembering poles, adjusting socks, checking the race profile for the next reference point, adapting pace, and so on. There was never a moment where I had too much time to consider what I was doing, and so the succession of mountain passes, aid stations and supporters all flowed together, with nights and days not affecting the plans or flow at all. It felt normal to be running at 3am, as the only effect of the days and nights was was whether our head torches were on or not.
Running the Tor was a way of life, and that’s why it was so hard when the race was stopped, that we’d been ‘denied’ the opportunity to keep on with our life. We’d been running for 4 days at that stage, and had settled into the rhythm of run, eat, sleep, all too well.
Many describe ultra running as a very selfish sport, and the Tor personified its most addictive elements. Runners tend to snatch a few hours here and their during their busy lives to train, yet the Tor offered us ultra junkies a one week continuous fix. There’s no other event that can offer this. Now I understand why so many runners come back year after year to the Tor.
What the Tor makes you realise is how important other people are to your race. The volunteers who feed you and assist at aid stations are key to the race itself, but the TDG involved the whole mountain community, and in wild high pastures shepherds and farmers rang cow bells at their huts to cheer us on, mountain guides on the trails clapped and took photos as we passed, villagers all urged on onwards. Other runners offered help to those who slowed or stopped, and friendships sprung up whilst running. In the photo above, I’m with Kevin at Gressoney, who became a good friend during the race.
Whilst running it’s easy to forget the support of those at home who got you there in the first place. When I finished the race and returned to Courmayeur, I turned my phone on for the first time in days, and was greeted by a huge string of texts and e-mails from those who’d been tracking me online. It was humbling, and more than a little concerning, how much people had been clicking at all hours of the day and night. The reports of fresh snow, helicopter rescues, and vile weather, didn’t exactly help allay peoples concerns.
Out on the course it was all anyone could do, to focus on their race and keeping themselves safe, let alone thinking about the worries of those at home. All I can advise anyone planning on running the TDG in the future, or from spectating at home, is that there is a great support and safety network in place on the race, and the runners are some of the most experienced I have been fortunate enough to race with.
My experience of the Tor 2015 was brilliant. It wasn’t perfect, but it had a huge impact on me, and the style of events I will seek out in the future. As far as the stats for the race, only the fastest six runners managed to reach Courmayeur before it was cancelled. Video footage of the winner Patrick Bohard staggering across the Col Malatra and through town, give a fair idea of how tough this years event was. In the end I came 179th overall, out of 474 runners who reached Gressoney, and c.825 who set off from Courmayeur. I’d been moving steadily up the field, and my race strategy was working well.
For sure I’m aware that the attrition on the field was already high, and the second half is always tougher than the first, but the survivor rate on the TDG is far higher than say the UTMB, yet has far rougher ground and steeper gradients. It raises the question why the UTMB whose entry is protected by a barrier of qualifying race points, has lower finisher stats than an unrestricted entry into a race all of whose distance and height gains are more than double the UTMB. I think it all boils down to marketing again. The TDG is relatively unknown, so attracts genuine knowledgeable runners.
For anyone seeking a pure running race, this event isn’t for you. The mountain conditions always dictate that some sections have to be walked, and your speed is adjusted more by that, then any planned pace or other runners. The Tor is the purest race where the hare and tortoise complete on the same platform. I’m firmly in the second category, but to reel in the runners one by one, due to greater use of mountain skills, was really interesting and gratifying. Fitness is just one aspect of a bigger jigsaw, all of whose elements are essential to make the race happen for you.
Despite working in the mountains every day, the Tor taught me a lot about equipment, and what to adapt for future races. More than any other event, it cemented my belief that you need to run your race, and not anyone else’s. What worked for me, doesn’t necessarily work for anyone else. Before I ran the Tor, I scoured other blogs for advice and tips on kit and preparation. All were wrong, yet right at the same time. They were written by the individual about their personal experience, and so I’ve tried to avoid providing any specific information, rather the focus on the key approach to running this race which is so important.
Where do you end a blog about the Tor des Geants? The start seems as good a place as any. The photo above shows me looping out of Place Brocherel in Courmayeur, at the start of the race. If only I’d known how influential and educational the days ahead would be, I’d have had a huge smile on my race. You learn more about yourself and running on every race you do, but there’s no other race on the planet which offers it in such vast quantities.
To complete the Tor is the rough distance as running from Blackpool to London, with the equivalent of nearly 7 ascents of Everest from Base Camp between. The race profile below shows the never-ending series of climbs and descents. To the outsider that seems a super-human challenge, yet I hope that if you’ve read this blog you now understand that it is not impossible to someone who is ready to immerse themselves in the event, and to draw on the emotional nourishment of the experience. Fitness plays a part, but a relatively small part. Having a big heart, both medically and mentally, is what brings all Tor finishers together.
See you in the Val d’Aosta again soon! KJ
To visit the website of the Tor des Geants in English, click here.