[Editor’s Note: Nickademus Hollon, a 2013 Barkley Marathons finisher, raced and finished seventh at the 330-kilometer Tor des Géants in early September. Here is his report from his 81 hours, 33 minutes on course.]
“The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses–behind the lines, in the gym, and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights.” –Muhammad Ali
Some weeks before the race
I sat atop Col Malatra and just sat in the cold, frigid wind, doing nothing but breathing, absorbed into the moment, into the mountain. There was no race up there. There was no goal, only peace and a frigid breeze. From my right, I heard a quiet screeching noise, something akin to a small child crying. I heard and watched as a small boulder rolled down the side of a scree slope and tried to fix my eyes on whatever dislodged the rock, but I couldn’t see anything. Then, as if it was a chameleon revealing itself, a large ibex emerged along with two smaller ibex following closely behind. I watched the beautiful animal leap bounds and distances over the treacherous rock. Precarious, no. Doubtful, no. The animal was certain, confident with each and every movement. The ibex was the true master of this Alpine terrain.
More rocks tumbled down the side of the steep cliff and I just sat there, cross legged in the glacial wind, admiring the ibex as they continued to traverse down the mountain. The mountain didn’t want me to continue. I was meant to be there in that moment. I was meant to stay still. I watched the rocks as they were dislodged by the ibex, falling all across the trail, making it somewhat impassable for those moments. I didn’t mind. Once the ibex had stopped moving, I figured it was safe to resume my run and begin descending the pass. Not a second later, another group of people appeared at the summit, shattering the silence, peace, and magic. In the weeks following, I had to become the ibex.
Excerpt from an interview the day before race
Interviewer: “Nick are you scared? Are you afraid of anything at this race?”
Nick: “No. There is no room for that in this race. Fear doesn’t exist in me. Fear is the mind killer. I carry to the start line only respect for the course and self-confidence. I’ve swallowed fear into the black hell of oblivion long ago.”
And so it goes…
I couldn’t sleep. I never can the night before the race. It was worse than Christmas Eve. It’s the nerves. It’s the anxiety. Most of it all, it’s the pressure I put on myself. I peered out my window around 4:30 a.m. and heard intense rain pouring down from low-lying storm clouds, shrouding the massive mountains I’d soon be running over. Perfect race conditions. The worse it was, the better I usually did.
Day 1: Courmayeur to Valgrisenche, 30.6 miles, 13,110 feet of gain
The start was at 10 a.m. It made no difference, though, when it would start. Everyone, everyone would be running for at least three days. I stood in the pouring rain now, staring at my watch, absorbing but trying to ignore the massive amount of ‘energy’ I could feel escaping from the 600-plus participants behind me. “Race your own race, Nickademus,” I kept saying to myself. Andrea Bocelli’s “Con Te Partirò” marked that we were now only two minutes from the start. I could feel the energy around me intensify. History was about to take place.
Unlike Barkley or Western States, where maybe a 10 or 15 people will pass by you, showing off some fast pace that they can’t keep, about 30 or 40 people had passed me so far. I felt my insides twitch each time that happened. “Just remember Barkley, Nick,” I told myself. But that was only like 15 people that passed you in total. At least 40 had gone by already, larger than the entire Barkley field. My heart sank.
I followed the first-place woman down from Passo Alto to Promoud at 6,500 feet where there was an aid station and a friend who had brought me a non-alcoholic beer I was looking forward to. I slammed down the beer and a few pieces of salami and twitched a few more times as more runners whizzed by. Then I fixed my eyes on what I considered the most difficult climb in the race, ‘Col de la Mort,’ otherwise known as Col de la Crosatie at 9,300 feet. I could see what looked like small ants in the distance, traversing the mountain slopes. The col climbed 2,800 feet in a little under two miles. Although I had ran this before while training, I could feel the mileage and elevation sticking to my legs like sidewalk chewing gum on the bottom of a shoe.
The rain started to really pour down as I neared the last 1,000 feet. It was no longer just switchbacks; the trail was a sharp ridge with 100-foot drops just inches off the trail. It was hailing now and the wind was strong. Shielding my eyes with my buff, I stabbed my poles onto the rock, hoping they wouldn’t slip. I summited still wearing my shorts and tank top while other runners threw on more layers. I don’t know if the others were going to stay up there for a long time, but I certainly wasn’t.
The descent down to Lac du Fond was dangerously slippery and steep. I recalled fighting off a herd of wild mountain goats here during my training.
I passed a few runners as I flew between steep switchbacks and could see a small line of people already descending some 1,000 feet below. The downhill got steeper, rockier, and more technical as it got closer to the lake. Dangerous cliffs bordered the side of trail.
Night 1: Valgrisenche to Cogne, 35 miles, 13,600 feet of gain
“Today will be that day, not tomorrow, not the next day, not the next week, but right here, right now. WHO AM I? I AM THE CHAMPION!” –Anonymous motivational track
Technically speaking, Valgrisenche to Cogne is one of the most difficult sections of the race. This year’s edition pitted me against a constant rain which turned to chilly snow at higher elevations, slick rocks, and quad-murdering descents.
A mile into the climb up Col Fenêtre (one of three 4,600-foot climbs), my leg cramps returned with a vengeance! Night was starting to fall and I couldn’t make sense of it. I had been taking in plenty of salts, both through pills and food. “Go away cramps! Shoo!” I said as a European runner turned around in front of me, looking for the other person that I was talking to.
Night fell about 1,000 feet from the top, revealing the locations of the runners ahead and behind. I kept my light as dim as possible. It wasn’t a race, but I didn’t want anyone to know where I was. Subsequently, I kept tripping over rocks. Solid plan, I thought to myself, I’ll be so sneaky the rocks won’t even know when what kicked ‘em!
I topped out at Col Fenêtre feeling great and ready to descend. I paused for a moment, breathed in the fresh mountain air, and then threw on my iPod, ready for some hardcore motivation. I put it on my ‘MOTIVATE’ playlist, which was pretty much a compilation of Schwarzenegger, Rocky, and Muhammad Ali reciting various movie lines. I started to feel pumped and found myself muttering the lines out loud as I ran down the steep, precarious slopes on to Rhêmes-Notre-Dame (4,000 feet of descent in three miles). “WHO AM I? I AM THE CHAMPION!” I yelled out loud as I roared past one of the other runners. “It’s not about how hard you get hit; it’s about how hard you can GET HIT AND KEEP MOVING FORWARD… THAT’S HOW WINNING IS DONE!” I yelled even louder as I watched the lights of other runners from the distance turn toward me. I must have been scaring the crap out of them. I didn’t care. I was on a good endorphin high and Rocky was bringing me all the way down the mountain.
The climb up Col Entrelor was extremely long, extremely lonely, and extremely rainy. Until I got up to 8,000 feet, that was. Then it was extremely long, extremely lonely, and extremely snowy. Biting winds and annoying bursts of snow kept me from admiring the summit for too long and I began yet another quad-murdering descent to Eaux Rousses where my crew could fix me up once more.
Every time I looked up, my headlamp illuminated the reflective tape on the course markers, entertainingly and painfully showing me what was up ahead. Eventually I stopped looking so far up as the reflection of the flags just seemed to go on for forever. Then, amidst following a Frenchman up the mountain, my eyes fixated on what looked like a wiggling star near a mountain peak. I stared at the star intensely and watched it suddenly disappear. My heart sank and I immediately resumed looking at the ground. What I thought was a star was a runner some thousands of feet above me on the same climb. Best not to look up, Nick. Best not to look up.
I stopped to eat and drink about every 15 minutes, assuring that I could fully chew my food instead of choking it down. Consequently, the distance between me and the Frenchman grew and he eventually pulled away. I accidentally glanced upward a few more times. Dammit! There was now a red blinking light teasing me from some thousand feet or so above and reflective tape as far as my light could see.
The last 700 feet of the climb nearly brought me to my knees. My cramps were long gone, but the wind toward the top was strong; there was a light snow; and all the rocks I was navigating over were now frozen with a light dusting of white powder. When I finally reached the top, I bent over and kissed the sign, ‘Col Loson 3300m’. Good game, chap! Good game…
A little ways down was probably one of the strangest sights I had seen during the entire race. A large trailer had been dropped by a helicopter atop a small clearing at around 10,800 feet. About three volunteers had hot coffee and tea set up and they were all huddled inside as I ran up. They shared some of their precious tea and I found myself staring upward at the stars again, thinking how strange and yet privileged I was to be drinking hot tea atop a 11,000-foot peak in the Alps at 3:00 a.m.
Day 2: Cogne to Donnas, 27 miles, 11,000 feet of gain
I awoke in a haze. My 15-minute nap had been enough for me to dream that I was back in Courmayeur, tending to a tomato garden. I checked the sign as I walked back into the kitchen area, loading up on some warm soup, to see that Cogne was 100k in, almost… one third of the way. It was clear that I was in for the long haul and better that I not think about the length of the race.
Further up the trail, I was simply stunned as I watched an orange, Creamsicle sunrise illuminate the clear, white glaciers and contrast with the stark, metamorphic rocks of the Alps. No matter how I felt or how far I was into this race, this was heaven.
Yet still, my pace was falling apart when I caught a glimpse of the Sogno di Berdzé hut. Yay, just a large hill and I’m there! I was used to this by now. Anything on the course map that said it was ‘flat’ meant at least 3,000 feet of gain and getting to any refugio meant one extra hill minimum. Nothing came easy in this race. Climbs that would crush the souls of high-school, cross-country kids were commonplace and easily overlooked throughout the Tor.
On the edge of the lake were a few houses that I mistook for Rifugio Dondena and thought I was about 5k ahead of where I really was. “Toilette?” I asked. They waved me around the corner and I walked into what was not at all a toilet. Where was the toilet? What the hell was I staring at? There was a hole in the ground and on its sides were what looked like grips for your feet. I looked at the two other adjacent rooms. It appeared someone had robbed their toilets. I almost went to go inform the man until I saw the dark brown streaks lining the wall. I had around 140k now on my tired legs and attempted to fit my feet onto the grips and assume a wall-sit position, terrifyingly close to those brown streaks. I could feel my quads quiver and my grip slip as I began to slide toward the hole of doom. I got up, pulled up my pants. I couldn’t do this. Better that I find solace with some sharp granite rocks deep in the woods.
The course dropped down a brutally steep, yet short asphalt hill onto an old Roman road which I later learned was built in 25 BC… Damn Romans, why didn’t they build their road better? All these dang potholes I have to avoid. Clearly the heat was getting to me. I don’t think very many people can say they have ran on roads that old.
Day 2/Night 2: Donnas to Gressoney-Saint-Jean, 33 miles, 15,000 feet of gain
Now, not statistically speaking, Donnas to Gressoney-Saint-Jean is by far the hardest section of the race. Hands down. Although, there is no single ‘climb’, there are incessant climbs and descents on terrain that at times seems to need rock-climbing equipment. Worst of all for me, it was all at night.
My legs started to cramp; I was sweating bullets; and I couldn’t help but keep looking back. I felt like someone was right on me. I traced my hiking poles along old, Roman irrigation canals that were carved into the rocks in the forest that I had discovered when I had been training. When I summited the short climb right before Perloz, photographers signaled me their presence. I threw on a grin and managed a smiling “Gratzie!” for them being there. I thought to myself, If I can just fake being in a good mood, maybe I can even fool myself.
I rose up through cow field after cow field, chasing hordes of crickets with my shoes as I accidentally kicked a few. My friend back in town had explained to me that there were more crickets than normal this year because there had been a decrease in Alpine cow farming due to the European economic crisis. People wonder what we runners think about when we run. I think about cricket populations and their correlation to the economy.
I finally turned on my light and, in the distance, I could hear a young kid yelling to his mom, “Uno arrivi! Uno arrivi!” I was ‘uno’ for sure but that kid was going to have to wait some quindichi minuti or so for me to arrivar. This family was literally out in the middle of nowhere, waiting for us runners. They had prepared a homemade tart all the way up here, just for us complaining, broken runners. I started to really feel the unique community this race has to offer and, despite how much I hurt, despite how cold it was, despite how wicked and technical the downhills were, how fortunate I was to be here right now.
Any yet, this was no playground. This was no race. This was life and death now. This was surviving. My iPod was off and hung loosely to the side of my shorts. My vision was fading in and out and I was in some sort of slow, chaotic autopilot, moving forward toward I don’t even remember what. I just knew this was where I was supposed to go.
I kicked a rock hard with my right foot and caught my balance back with my left foot, consequently knocking another rock loose. I started to fall face forward and caught myself with my poles just in time to regain my balance. “What the hell, NICK!!?!?! DO YOU WANNA DIE!?!? QUIT SCREWING AROUND!!!” I yelled to myself. I had no choice; this was no place to be weak, no place to let things slip, no place to fall.
I tripped my way into the small aid station where a large bonfire was roaring. I must have looked and acted like a zombie. I saw a large face of a jester appear on the fire-lit rocks off to my left, its smile twisted and face distorted as it began to disband, swirling into a spiral.
I could see the beacons of death beyond the camp, those bastard, duct-taped reflectors affixed to course markers. I just had to make it to the next one and from there the next one… and so on. The beacons of death summoned me deeper into my own, private hell. It was hell… It was horrible… It was everything I wanted the race to be.
Day 3: Gressoney-Saint-Jean to Valtournenche, 24 miles, 8,500 feet of gain)
“What has mood to do with it? You fight when the necessity arises–no matter the mood! Mood’s a thing for cattle or making love or playing the baliset. It’s not for fighting.” –Frank Herbert in Dune
The magic I experienced during the Barkley Marathons fifth loop, where was it? How could I summon that? Where was that magical admiration? That painless bliss that brought me to the finish line back in April? I had been searching for it for over 200k and 50 hours now, and had only found traces.
It seemed like, peak after peak, the col would never end. It kept getting steeper, my steps kept getting weaker, and I felt like I was moving as slow as a dead snail.
I came across a random guy on the fire road while dodging a large trash truck. “Cuanto distanza a Saint-Jacques [the next aid], cinque kilometer, si?” I butcher Italian to ask. “Di piu!” He responds lightheartedly. Di Piu? What the hell did that mean? More? Or less? ‘Piu’ sounds like ‘poco’, which means less in Spanish. It must mean less… I debate this for the better half of the next hour before coming across a sign that says, ‘Saint-Jacques 1hr’! Ahh! What the hell? I started losing it. I keep running downhill. I keep running in general but I know I can only keep this facade going for so long.
Day 3/ Night 3: Valtournenche to Ollomont, 27 miles 8,900 feet of gain
“In order to know the light, you must live through the darkness.” –Frank Herbert in Dune
If it wasn’t for those damned beacons of duct-tape death, I would have started to worry if I was on course.
And then I made that classic mistake again of looking into the distance with my headlamp and illuminated what looked like an entire mountain with those death beacons. Oh, totally forgot about this col. Heading toward it, suddenly the wind picked up something nasty, and it started to not snow but blizzard. My line of sight was reduced to my feet and I held an arm up over my eyes so I could see bit by bit, sliding my buff down over my mouth. I yelled out into the mountains. This was no place to hang out. I had little energy but I started to run. I knew moving faster would make my blood pump, and, thus, make me warmer. I wasn’t hungry either but I shoved down a Clif bar. I knew that, so long as the body had some food, some fuel in it to digest, that the blood temperature would remain relatively high. I was in a decent mood, forging through the blizzard approximating the top of the col. This was by far the worst weather I had endured during the race yet.
As I neared the top of the col, the weather turned more foul; the winds got harder and much colder. For the first time in a long time, I was running uphill, eager to get to the other side in hopes that the leeward side of the col wouldn’t have wind. To my luck, it didn’t and I started as quickly as I could to drop down into the next valley.
I come across an abandoned cow barn right before dropping into the forest, remembering how horribly technical that section ahead was. It wasn’t pleasant smelling by any means as I step through cow poop. I peer with my light into the deteriorating old building. I see old cow pies scattered throughout. My eyes are drooping and my vision is starting to blur again. I need to sleep. Somewhere in my delirium, I decide that piling up dry cow pies in a corner is a good idea and would make for some soft bedding. Was I planning on buckling down there for the night? I’m not sure. But I spent the next five minutes gathering dry cow pies. I then pulled out my emergency blanket, curled into the fetal position, set my alarm clock for 15 minutes, turned sideways, and attempted to fall asleep. Two minutes later, my knee pain was skyrocketing and I couldn’t close my eyes. I got up; there was no point in trying to sleep. It wasn’t fixing anything. The tight choke hold of night was closing in on me more and more. There was no way to escape this nightmare, except to move through it.
Morning arrived and I was midway through another climb when I closed my eyes, breathed deep, and counted to 10. Trying to refocus my mind, concentrate, forget the world around me, forget the race. When I opened my eyes, they fixed upon this strange, phantom image of what appeared to be some sort of burro halfway up in a pine tree, chewing on a branch. I watched the burro flutter with the wind, tried for a moment to interpret the vision, and then watched as the ground around me blurred and swirled.
I could see in the distance behind me, eighth and ninth places approaching quickly.
Day 4: Ollomont to the Finish, 29 miles 9,500 feet of gain
“I open at the close.” –Harry Potter
“You gonna’ race this race or what, Nick? What the hell do you think you are doing out there?” I could hear the emotion in her voice, livid, pissed off, sleep deprived, anger, and disappointment. I was too weak to give a proper response and had difficulty gathering the mental strength to look her in the eyes. I just wanted food and then I could go chase back my seventh place and keep ninth off of me. I sat down for a brief moment my mom hovered closer to me, “NICK, there is nothing for you at this aid station, get the hell out of here, and get your ass back on the trail. There is nothing here for you and you are wasting your time. “She said sternly, stopping and turning toward me in the middle of the trail, “Nick, if you don’t start trying, I don’t think I will be at the finish line.” She turned around and stormed off.
I angrily stabbed my poles into the ground. I felt like a failure, letting down everyone who believed in me. “Enough!” I yelled into the nothingness. The swirling stopped; my vision turned to normal. I wasn’t putting up with failure anymore.
Myself, [Masahiro] Ono (who eventually finished eighth place), and Giuseppe [Grange] (eventual ninth place) arrived at Saint-Rhémy-en-Bosses close together. As I left, I hugged my five-year-old sister who was, with my stepdad, visiting me for the last time before the finish. I told her, “I love you, Eve, and see you soon!” I yelled out to my mom as I started chasing Ono up the next hill, “Imma’ show you how great I am!” It was time.
Giuseppe arrived at the aid station just as I left. He was maybe six minutes behind Ono and me. I hiked harder and harder. I was breathing at my limit now and using every last bit of energy to pull off a strong charge to the top of Col Malatra. If my mom was right and I wasn’t racing back in Oyace and Ollomont, I was certainly racing now. There was no disappointment, no self-doubt. I had to get ahead. I had to beat them.
I glanced over my shoulder as I pulled myself up and over the last pitch of Col Malatra and saw Ono ascending only one or two minutes back. I had to lose him.
I reached Refugio Borelli, only 6.2 miles from the finish line, two minutes ahead of Ono. As it turned out, Ono’s name was no coincidence as I looked over my shoulder and thought, Ohhhhh no!
A famous quote from Muhammad Ali played loudly into my ears and leaked into my soul. I yelled out with Muhammad into the thin, mountain air. “I DUN’ WRESTLED WITH AN ALLIGATOR… I HAVE HANDCUFFED LIGHTNING AND THROWN THUNDER IN JAIL… THE OTHER DAY, I MURDERED A ROCK, INJURED A STONE… I’M SO BAD I MAKE MEDICINE SICK… THAT’S HOW BAD I AM… y’all got this other guy bet to win… but you’re wrong, you’re all wrong… I’M GOING TO SHOW YOU HOW GREAT I AM!” I ferociously yelled into the forest. I felt a surge of confidence, butterflies in the stomach, a cool, calm, controlled, magical admiration start to take over my body at Refugio Bertone, the very last aid station before a two-mile descent down to the finish line.
It finally happened, that ephemeral perfection. That Barkley fifth-loop magic that I had been seeking for the past 81 hours finally possessed my body. And just like the last two miles of Barkley, I stared down at my watch and told myself I wanted to be done in 22 minutes. I shredded over the rocks, tick tack, tick tack, with my poles striking the ground perfectly, precisely, each footstep, perfect, confident, flawless, perfect motion. I was dancing with the devil and finally winning.
I started to cry as the end of the trail came into view. I blasted the techno music louder and slammed onto the pavement. I was now only a short half mile from the finish. An Italian kid who had helped me out back at Valgrisenche ran with me toward the finish. I was on competitive overdrive, nothing was going to beat me now. The buildings rose out from the trees and I could hear the announcer’s voice. One of the kids running with me said I was now only 45 seconds from the finish. Another argued that, at my pace, I was 30 seconds away. I looked at them both intensely and said, “No, I am 15 seconds away.” I turned the corner, onto the red carpet. I could hear loud cheering filling the streets ahead of me. Two American flags fluttering in the wind, I yelled as loud as I could and jumped high into the air, “IMMA’ SHOW YOU HOW GREAT I AM!”
I spent so much of this race wrapped up in the idea of re-creating the magic and power I felt during the fifth loop of Barkley. When I finally arrived at the finish line, my adrenaline pumping, breathing hard, I looked around and into the eyes of the community looking back at me. The young kids lining the streets of La Thuile, the aid-station volunteer hunkered under a rock at 10,000 feet just to check my bib number, the old women collecting mushrooms and cheering me on, the kid and his mom waiting eagerly in the cold to see my tired body stumble on by. That magic I had been searching for was there all along, wrapped up in the unique culture and community of the Aosta Valley.