Beautiful Misery: Meghan Hicks’s 2014 Tor Des Géants Report

It’s an ordinary day when an extraordinary email lands in my inbox, confirmation of my registration in the 2014 Tor des Géants.

I re-read the notice over and over, trying to supplant in my skull the idea that, I will run this race someday, with the notion that, I will run the Tor this year. My relationship with the Tor began in 2010. That was the year the race scratched its way under my skin, taking hold of me in a way over which I had no control.

I’d never heard of the Tor, but my Canadian friend Leslie Gerein had. She started the 2010 race. That year, the first year the Tor took place, I followed Leslie’s endeavorings online, waiting to see her check in and out of aid stations, following her progress on the the race’s map, marking the immense topographical ups and downs she was traversing, and imagining her physical and emotional highs and lows. The further she traveled, the more I wanted to run the race, too.

The million-dollar question is always, “Why?” Why did this adventure captivate me? Why does any adventure gather my attention? I never have a meaty, satisfying answer.

There is nothing truly logical about the Tor: 206 miles, 78,000 feet of climb, on the Alta Via 1 and 2 hiking trails, a continuous (non-stage) race, a 150-hour time limit. Its stats alone betray its obscenity. But I love the Marathon des Sables, too, another really hard race that takes place in the mostly unlovable heat and sand of the Sahara Desert. Inexplicably sometimes, an adventure climbs into my heart and takes up residence, without asking me if I would like it to live there.

[Editor’s Note: For a collection of images from this year’s race, check out our Tor des Géants photo gallery.]

Leslie eventually dropped from the 2010 Tor. Her body gave out on her at about halfway, one of her shins swelling, turning red, and coursing with pain on the downhills. Leslie is one of the toughest ultrarunners I know, I reasoned back then. If Leslie can’t finish it, there’s no way I can. I put the race in my back pocket. I would need years of toughening up before I would be ready to tackle the beast.

Those years went by. I ran a lot of hard races, and journeyed along some difficult multi-day trips. And through these things, always the Tor remained on my mind. With each finish, I’d tell myself it was one more step up the long ladder I needed to climb until I was ready to start the Tor. Finally, late last year, I realized I had the mental confidence in my physical ability to start the race.

But starting and finishing the Tor are two different things, and I wouldn’t know if I was mentally and physically strong enough to finish it until I gave it a shot. I’d been going on long backcountry adventures for more than 15 years and was eight years an ultrarunner. Almost everything I tried was now in or close to my wheelhouse. Signing up for a race that I actually had about equal chances of not finishing as finishing? This fired me up.

***

It’s the day before the race, at the so-called ‘Chest Giving Ceremony.’ The event, with a hilarious English name thanks to a funny translation, is where the race’s ‘top entrants’ are given their bib numbers. I along with a half dozen or so other women and 20-ish men are being introduced to the media and locals present with all the pomp and circumstance for which Euro trail running has become known.

I am introduced in Italian. I don’t actually know my name has been called until someone gives me a little push between the shoulder blades. I walk awkwardly down the ceremony’s red carpet. I look out into the crowd of about 200, and everyone is looking back with giant, expectant eyes. I want to tell them, “Please don’t expect much from me.”

“You won the Coldwater Rumble this year, yes?” the officiant asks. Thanks, UltraSignup, I think sarcastically as I answer him in the affirmative.

The announcer’s mention of the Coldwater Rumble transports me instantly back to it. I ran the Coldwater Rumble this past January, and woke up from it the next morning with an almost-nonfunctional right leg. It was the beginning of a five-month injury. Though a great race that I hope to run again, the Coldwater Rumble does not currently hold a fond spot in my memory bank. Thanks to that injury, my Tor training started around the first of July, two or three months late. My abbreviated training guarantees the extra challenge of being somewhat unfit. I will be happy to finish the Tor at whatever slow pace I need to go.

A couple weeks ago, I asked the race organization to remove me from the top-entrants’ list. I told them that I would not be able to compete for a top spot–as I had originally hoped when I signed up for the race–due to my long injury and short training. The race organization opted to leave me on the list, however, so here I am, a lame duck floating in a pool of very fit men and women.

***

Col d’Arp is everything a Tor runner dreams it could be. It’s the top of the first of climb, something like 4,500 feet higher than where we began in Courmayeur a couple hours ago. It’s the first of 25 of these climbs, so our legs and minds are young, spry, dreamy. It’s got about 75 race fans spider-ing about it, screaming and cowbell-ing and high fiving each of us runners with vigor. It’s a part of the endless alpine, where green grass today yields to cloudless blue sky. There are no limits, real or perceived, on Col d’Arp.

A short time later, at the race’s first refreshment point, about one third of the way down the backside of the pass, I’m somewhere in, I don’t know, 150th, 200th place. None of us here is exactly at the front of the pack, or where any of us should be doing anything but taking good care of ourselves and others. Another runner bodychecks me, though, to get to the drink table. There are so many miles ahead of us, I think. We all need each other to get through this, don’t we? His action is intentional, I decide, though probably sourced from adrenaline and in-the-moment-ness rather than actual rudeness of character. I shake it off and take my turn with the Coke.

As I jog the combination of dirt road, paved road, and singletrack downhill, I realize that the emotional highs and lows of this race will come as quickly as its topographical deviations.

***

While the village of La Thuile, indeed, harbors an official aid station, the 17-kilometer refreshment point, it’s been mostly swallowed by what must be more than 1,000 people lining its streets.

I smile big for the smartphones pointed in my direction. I pat the hands of kids sticking out between barriers and banners. I turn back to watch them squeal and shake with joy after our high fives, as if I am a Hollywood celebrity. La Thuile is electric.

I jog through the energy, keeping my eyes peeled for Bryon Powell, my crew for the first half of the Tor. I wonder if I will miss him amongst all these people, if he’s perhaps stuck in some traffic jam trying to get up the narrow valley in which La Thuile lies, or if he hasn’t been able to the find the aid station in this mass of humanity?

I’m not sure why I ever have my doubts about him, because when I do catch sight of Bryon, I see him standing like a glowing orb of calm amidst the chaos. I chill with Bryon for several minutes, loading my pack with fuel, eating some pizza and a couple fruit smoothies, drinking ice tea, and commenting about how the weather is far more humid than I expected it to be.

I leave La Thuile feeling like a rock, fortified by fans, fuel, and Bryon.

***

The route between La Thuile and the next refreshment point, Rifugio Deffeyes, is absolutely stuffed with people. When it’s all said and done, I estimate I have seen at least 2,000 people along this 3,500-foot climb. Whereas the people atop Col d’Arp and down in La Thuile energized me, I feel intellectually and emotionally torn by this crowd.

To be sure, every single person cheers for me, and all the runners. I cannot know it yet, but their cheers are just the beginning of a six-day parade of positive energy that locals and other trail users will bestow upon us. Day, night, rain, sun, remote refuge, big town, old man, young child: their cheering will literally be unceasing.

But the trail is a mess. Sorry to be so honest, but it is. It is littered with decades-old social trails as well as newly deposited tissues, candy wrappers, and other unmentionables.

My intellect sees all of these people standing and sitting and littering up here in the alpine, a delicate environment that more easily yields to the impact of humanity than other wild places. But I feel in my heart these people’s good graces toward all of us and our ultimate finishing goals. Rifugio Deffeyes becomes a dichotomy for me.

***

A good headspace just isn’t coming easy. Am I letting myself be too internally affected by external variables? Am I, aren’t we all just products of our environment? Isn’t that why I’m here, to absorb this new-to-me place and space?

This is the existential conversation I am having with myself on the descent to Planaval, something like a marathon’s distance into the Tor.

Col de la Crosterie, the high point before Planaval, is easily my personal high point for Day 1. It is early evening, so pink light graces the far-off peaks and poofy clouds. The near side of the col is laced with technicality, the sort of steps and scrambles and sideswipes of cliffs and rocks over which my body naturally just flies. I ate polenta at the previous refreshment point, for the first time in an ultramarathon, which I quickly learned is Italian jet fuel. I feel like a bird.

But going down the backside of the col, it is emotionally all downhill. First comes the massive rock memorial erected for the Chinese runner who died here during last year’s Tor. Yuan Yang slipped on rocks made wet by a day and night of rain, fell a short distance, and died very quickly from head injuries. The memorial is decorated with notes and flowers, things people have carried all the way up to honor the deceased.

The accident was just that, something that could happen to anyone, anywhere. Except that Yuan Yang wasn’t just someone, somewhere. He was probably a good man with a lot of people who loved him and huge ambitions for his life.

No, he died 20-odd miles into a 200-mile challenge, I think. He wasn’t probably ambitious. He was ambitious.

I stand at the memorial, my left hand on it and my head upturned to the sky. I am overcome by a sense of helplessness, a feeling that, no matter how hard we try, we will never, can never be totally in charge of ourselves. There are forces out there–be them physics, or statistical probability, or a god–far more powerful than any single human. I continue downhill, crying for Yuan Yang and the tenuousness that is just trying to do this thing called life.

Some time later, still on the descent to Planaval, I encounter a fresh pile of human shit in the middle of the trail. I would be shocked off my rocker, except that this is the third fresh pile I’ve seen since starting the race. Those other unmentionables on the ascent to Rifugio Deffeyes earlier today? Yep, two more doodies. Three piles of poo can’t all be accidents, I decide. I am filled with anger that someone has chosen to deface this beautiful place.

2014 Tor des Geants - descent to Planaval

Scenery on the descent to Planaval. Photo: iRunFar/Bryon Powell

It’s another five or six miles later that I will arrive to Valgrisenche, the first life base at about 48 kilometers into the race. Here I will have a little break for dinner with my crew, Bryon. On the rolling, runnable terrain between Planaval and Valgrisenche, I command my mind to settle out, to find the peace it had while climbing the last col, to take that with me into my time with Bryon, and into the night ahead. “Fake it till you make it,” I whisper this mantra into Valgrisenche.

Meghan Hicks - 2014 Tor des Geants - Valgrisenche life base

Getting ready to leave Valgrisenche. Photo: iRunFar/Bryon Powell

***

Euphoria returns on the next two passes after Valgrisenche, Col Fenêtre and Col Entrelor.

The geographic approaches to and exits from these two cols are long and wend-y journeys through the alpine, like every col in the Tor. It is night. The sky is cloudless, save for parcels of low fog that ooze and clutch the sides of the mountains before disappearing in poofs. A near-full moon bathes the landscape in bright, white light. Wet rocks shine in the moonlight.

The headlamps of other Tor runners inch along the trail ahead and behind. Occasionally, over all these night-time hours, one of us passes another. Mostly, though, I am alone. Tonight, a sense of solitude travels with a sense of relief. I do not always like to be alone, but my experiences with people so far in this race have been mixed. I am wary, and feel more comfortable by myself.

I am overcome by the sensation of floating. The contentedness of my mind infiltrates my body and I move right along with what feels like little effort.

Between Col Fenêtre and Col Entrelor, we duck down out of the alpine and through a little village with a refreshment point. Well, ‘ducking’ is an understatement. We drop 3,700 vertical feet and gain 4,200 more. I’m not even a day into this race and the sticker shock of those numbers, the deviation between just two passes, doesn’t phase me. With such an extreme amount of elevation change piled up pass after pass, our minds must readjust to the Tor’s reality.

This period of peace and lightheartedness lasts for almost all night. I am convinced it is a theme, finally emerging. I think, I’m finally setting in.

***

The Chardonney refreshment point. Some time before sunset on the second evening. The sky glows grey-blue with clouds and fog. A storm is in the works, somewhere around here. I can feel the relative humidity going up and the barometric pressure going down. I’ve got something like 32 hours of race time in my feet, and I can feel that, too.

Earlier today, on the other side of the last col, on the approach to Rifugio Sogno, a familiar face appeared out of the wilds, Sarah Willis. She’s an American living in Switzerland who is spectating the Tor. She accompanies me for some miles, from the lower reaches of the valley to the top of the col after the refuge. (Pacing is legal.) Time flies as we powerhike uphill. She makes me laugh, and I am on top of the world when we hug goodbye, me heading toward the next life base at Donnas, and her heading back to the last life base at Cogne.

Meghan Hicks - 2014 Tor des Geants - Chardonney

Headed toward Chardonney in the gathering clouds and fog. Photo: iRunFar/Bryon Powell

In what seems to be a developing theme, my lows come on the downhills, and the long one after the col is no different. After bidding Sarah adieu, my waning appetite starts to control me. Eating doesn’t sound good. Definitely not hungry. Really, definitely not hungry. Don’t make me put anything in my mouth right now. No food going in means little energy coming out.

I previously told Bryon that I would attempt to sleep at Chardonney, and this is looking like a better idea all the time. It seems like I could use a little reset of my appetite, too. This will be my third attempt at sleeping, and I hope it is more successful than the others. The first attempt, at the 50-mile point of Eaux Rousses last night, was foiled by a feisty fox who came to check out the snacks I was resting next to. I tried to nap a second time at the Cogne life base today, but, though I felt sleepy, I couldn’t fall asleep.

My crew has somehow found one of my favorite foods, roasted chicken. Bryon’s discovery brings my appetite back! I devour the chicken like a cave woman, and some roasted potatoes, too. Ultragen, a huge bottle of it, goes down easy as well. Stick a fork in me, I’m done. I feel that warm, fuzzy feeling of sleepiness that accompanies a full belly.

I lay. Unconsciousness comes as far as my peripheral vision, which goes starry behind my eyelids, but the cogs of my mind crank just enough to keep me awake.

Thirty minutes go by and, feeling unproductive, I decide that I can still eat–a giant hunk of ice cream and a beer. Surely this will put me out? Yep, that’s enough. Finally, finally, I sleep.

When I wake, I feel refreshed. I look at my watch to see that just 45 minutes have ticked by. “I guess that’s enough?” I say to Bryon as I rise and shine into the night.

Meghan Hicks - 2014 Tor des Geants - beer in Chardonney

Beer in Chardonney. Photo: iRunFar/Bryon Powell

***

I am leaving Donnas, the life base located at about 148 kilometers in, somewhere around dawn of the third day, and after about 44 hours of racing. The memories of where I’ve been and my imaginings of where I still have go–the dangerous big picture has crept in–make me fight back tears when I say goodbye to Bryon outside the life base.

Meghan Hicks - 2014 Tor des Geants - leaving Donnas

Leaving Donnas. Photo: iRunFar/Bryon Powell

The route we take from here seems nonsensical. We climb a road through some vineyards, then lose all the elevation we’ve gained to a trail through them again. Then we climb even higher before giving all of that elevation back once more.

We have 7,700 feet of climb to the next high point, and 112 miles to go to the finish of the race. Whatever route we take to get to those places won’t change either of their realities, so I really shouldn’t care where we go. For some reason, though, these two downhills threaten to break me. I yell into the heavens, “Downhill, no!”

At the bottom of the second, bigger drop is an aid station, in the village of Perloz. Despite the fact that I am midpack, the aid station rings ginormous cow bells, hollers, and cheers like I am winning the race. Their over-the-top kindness is my last straw. I am snotting, sobbing, and shoulder shaking with the beginnings of an epic cry while I eat salami and sip tea.

Meghan Hicks - 2014 Tor des Geants - leaving Perloz

After Perloz. Photo: Mirko Franceschinis

As I leave Perloz, a man snaps my photo and leaves on the trail with me. His name is Mirko Franceschinis, and he’s a local trail runner using a vacation day from work to cheer Tor runners. Initially he runs past me but then he slows down until I catch him. He asks for permission to hike with me. “Of course, of course,” I say, relieved for any company besides my own mind.

I’ve already put away about 2,000 feet of that 7,700-foot climb, so Mirko and I hike 5,700 feet uphill together, from Perloz to the next high point at Rifugio Coda. He tells me stories about Italian trail running, some of the races he’s run, the history of the valley we’re climbing out of, the trees we’re hiking through, and some of the disappointing rumors of cheating that are coming out of the front of the race. We find raspberries and blueberries, and stain our fingers red and blue through indulging in them. We bumble through a few language-barrier issues, laughing. Hours pass. Rifugio Coda eventually comes into view on a ridgeline that keeps disappearing into a tall cloud bank. The clouds look to me like the thunderheads we see grow over big mountains in North America during summer afternoons.

“Are those clouds dangerous?” I ask Mirko.

“They may make some wind, and a little rain,” is his answer.

“What about lightning?” I ask.

“It’s okay,” he says as we continue uphill.

We crest the ridge on which the refuge lies, and begin a short traverse over to it. As we travel this treeless, grassy ridge, as part of a strung-out line of Tor runners, thunder bangs to our right.

My hiking partner is nonplussed, and either are any of the other runners ahead of me.

Meghan Hicks - 2014 Tor des Geants - approaching Coda

Approaching Rifugio Coda. Photo: Mirko Franceschinis

“Mirko?” I ask. “The thunder?”

“It’s okay,” he explains. “It is below us, not above us.”

Rain starts just as we arrive to the refuge, and the thunder still crackles off to the side. I gobble up a bowl of broth with pasta, don my rain coat, and say goodbye to my companion.

“Thank you, Mirko,” I say.

Mirko has previously told me that the route drops off the ridge pretty fast, so I make quick work of getting the heck out of the storm’s dodge, downhill.

A few hours later, I climb the next col, Col Marmontana, in a second thunderstorm. Fortunately for me, the storm rolls away just in time to hit the climb’s higher reaches. I do not envy the runners who arrived to the pass an hour before me, however.

I fall over and over on the rocks down the back of this pass. They are slick like snot with water and cow shit. I’m above 2,000 meters altitude and amidst a legit talus field and somehow cows have previously been here. One of my falls deposits a wide skid mark of green cow poo up the back of my jacket, in my hair, and on my hands. I can only laugh.

The weather holds while I descend this col and climb the next, and for the time it takes me to do the alpine traverse after that. I stop at what I decide is the best refreshment point on the whole Tor. It’s this bivouac of people–maybe 15 of them–and food who have been dropped here by helicopter. They’ve been here for days, serving up food and drink and safety for us Tor runners. They are in wicked-fine spirits, eager to welcome each of us out of the high country we’ve been traveling in all day. I eat beef and polenta. Each has a smoky flavor from being cooked over a campfire. It tastes like heaven. I don’t stay long, my eyes on the thick curtain of rain heading in our direction.

Meghan Hicks - 2014 Tor des Geants - Niel

After the storm, in Niel. Photo: iRunFar/Bryon Powell

The next storm cuts loose just as I begin a long descent to the village of Niel. So much rain falls that the trail becomes a muddy river. It’s the sort of thing you almost have to ride rather than run.

Bryon welcomes me into the Niel aid station, in the dark of my third night out, with a huge hug that I can feel all the way into my heart. Bryon is headed back to the U.S. for work tomorrow, so my friend Jon Bowskill, who will take over crewing, is here, too. He offers a huge smile and good company. Here also is Scott Jaime, who had to drop early in the race because of pain in his Achilles tendon. I can see the heartbreak all over his face, but he still musters encouragement for me. I eat and drink loads, trying to refuel. When I head back into the night, my spirit is carried along by the good energies of Niel.

***

The sleep monsters are gobbling me up on the interminable descent to Gressoney, the 200-kilometer point of the race. I have to shout and stomp my feet and bang my poles against rocks to stay awake. I make up songs that have about six words, probably the maximum capacity of my brain, and sing them repeatedly:

“The end is near! The end is near! I can feel the end is near!”

“I want to sleep. I want to sleep. I want to sleep, sleep, sleep.”

Over and over I stop, plant my poles in the ground in front of me, and lean over them. In this position, I am able to become unconscious, just for a moment.

I hallucinate little people, the size of gnomes or Smurfs, wearing running clothes and packs, curled up behind trees and sleeping. “You guys look comfortable,” I say out loud. Then I add, to myself, “Shhhhhh, don’t bother them. They’re sleeping.”

The last 1,000 meters of descent is a pile of rocks that have been organized into cobbles. Still wet, some of the rocks yield perfect traction while others make me slip until the tread of my shoe catches on something else. This stopping, starting, slipping action minces my already mincemeat feet, which have a couple days worth of blisters and have been wet for something like 12 hours so far today.

“Cobblestones, I hate thee. Cobblestones, I hate thee. Cobblestones and my feet do not agree,” I shout into the night.

Meghan Hicks - 2014 Tor des Geants - sleep monsters

A moment of unconsciousness? Photo: iRunFar/Bryon Powell

***

“Waaaaah waaaaah! Wah wah wah?”

I look back toward the source of the noise. Down the hill, I see a woman in a bright pink shirt, shouting.

“Waaaaah waaaaah! Wah wah wah?” she repeats, waving.

I’m some 3,000 feet above Gressoney, headed for the next pass. When I awoke to the sound of my alarm in the life base a little while ago, after two hours of sleep, I couldn’t think or see or form sentences. I slept for one more hour before realizing that, no matter how bad I felt, I had to get going. I walked out of Gressoney, just a couple hours before hitting the three-day mark in the race, on a grand total of three hours and 45 minutes of sleep. I have never felt so awful before starting a long day on the trail.

This is fucking insane. I don’t know how I will make it.

 “Waaaaah waaaaah! Wah wah wah?” The woman in pink yells again. I look around, to see who she might be yelling at. The problem is that, though she’s saying actual words, my tired brain can’t process them. I concentrate for a minute, and then get it.

“Meghan! Is that you?” she has been shouting all along.

The woman introduces herself as Monica Giuliani, an iRunFar fan who lives in Gressoney. She offers to accompany me to the top of the col a couple thousand feet above us.

“Boy do I ever want company!” I tell her. Monica showers me with praise and teaches me about her home valley as we climb. We snap photos at the col before I go one way and she goes another. As I begin my descent, I think about Mirko and Monica’s uncanny timing, Again a kind local has saved me from falling completely apart.

Meghan Hicks - 2014 Tor des Geants - Col Pinter with Monica Guiliani

On Col Pinter with Monica Giuliani. Photo: Monica Giuliani

At this point, however, external boosting only goes so far. Not long after saying goodbye to Monica, I have an absolute energetic meltdown. The terrain here is benign as far as the Tor is concerned, an 800-meter drop, a traverse, and a 500-meter drop, just 10 or 11 kilometers to where I am to meet my crew, Jon, for a resupply in the village of Saint Jacques.

I’ve reached the limits of my limited fitness, I tell myself. Two months of training yields three days and 200 kilometers. Not bad, except that this race is 330 kilometers long.

No, no, it’s fatigue. You haven’t slept much at all.

Hey dumb shit, have you fucking looked at your feet? They are a mess.

My anterior tibialis muscles are absolutely killing me. Each step down lights a fire in my shins.

I have, apparently, reached the point where I can converse with myself.

“It’s probably all of those things,” says my crew, Jon. He’s appeared, somewhat magically, to pace me in to Saint Jacques.”Wow, you really are going slow,” he jokes after we’ve walked together a bit.

Meghan Hicks - 2014 Tor des Geants - Saint Jacques

So tired before Saint Jacques. Photo: Jon Bowskill

We arrive to Saint Jacques. I check in at the refreshment point and then lay down on the cobblestones across the street. Before Jon agreed to be my crew, he asked what the job would entail. I told him that it would be like taking care of a baby. He probably thought I was kidding, at least until now. For hours, Jon toils over me, massaging my shins, force feeding me about 2,000 calories of food, and making me care for my feet. It is dark before he and I have put me back together again and sent me on my way, toward the next life base at Valtourneche, which is 13 kilometers away and over a 1,000-meter climb and 1,500-meter descent.

***

Late morning. Climbing out of Valtourneche. Human shit everywhere. I make myself stop counting after the eighth pile of poo since leaving the life base.

“Whyyyyyyyyyyyyy do youuuuuuuuuuu people shit everyyyyyyyyywhereeeeeeeee?” I whine into the ether.

Feeling powerless to protect this beautiful place from such thoughtless people, I march uphill. “These are not my people. These are not my people. These are not my people.” My mantra for this morning is not a pretty one.

***

I arrive to Col Vessonaz, something like 260 kilometers along. All day the route has stayed high above the Aosta Valley, and this is the point where I will make a big descent down into the thick of it again. Below me, ridges ripple on their dive-bomb descents toward flatter lands below. Above, cliffs of pale-yellow rocks stack like LEGO blocks high into an almost-clear sky. And beyond, glaciers and high peaks fill out the rest of my present worldview. Sunset light makes everything glow orange.

I have been awaiting this view all day. An Italian volunteer at one of the aid stations told me, in broken English, that it was a “granddaddy view.” He is so right.

Under normal circumstances, my heart would ache with the beauty. I would, literally, feel the view inside my chest. And in the presence of a big view, I am apt to jump up and down, flailing my arms through the air. Sometimes I whoop, too.

Here, now, I don’t feel anything. I intellectually comprehend the view. Fucking outstanding. One of the best I’ve seen during this whole Tor. Made better by the alpenglow. But I am numb to it.

It’s come to this, I think as I begin the screaming descent downhill, my mind has detached itself from my body.

***

Meghan Hicks - 2014 Tor des Geants - Rifigio Bertone

Meghan and Jon Bowskill at Rifugio Bertone, four kilometers from the finish. Photo courtesy of Jon Bowskill.

Col Malatra. Just under 3,000 meters altitude. A couple chains and metal foot pedals drilled into the mountainside, to assist the steep, short scramble. A view of the giant, glacier-thick ridge of peaks and needles separating Italy and France across the deep, dark Val Ferret. A midnight blue, star-filled sky above it all. The company of my good friend and crew, Jon. Replete silence except for the wind’s persistent whisper. An understanding that we are little people in a big, big world. The middle of my sixth night on the trail. A total of 10 hours, 45 minutes of sleep. The 25th and final col of the Tor des Géants. Fifteen kilometers from the race finish.

When the going got really tough this past week, during the times when I thought I wouldn’t finish, when I wondered if I could finish, I told myself to focus on Col Malatra. When the tears came hard, when my toenails seared with pain as they lifted off their nail beds on pressure blisters, when my quadriceps and anterior tibialis muscles very nearly gave up, when I was unable to eat food for huge chunks of time because I gagged on everything, when I felt like my body was a sponge that I was wringing the last drop of energy out of, I visualized myself on this col. To me, making it to Col Malatra meant that I was finishing this race.

But now that I am here, I still feel nothing. I got nada, emotionally. I am a hollow machine doing what I’ve been commanded to do.

***

It’s 3:15 a.m. when I cross the finish line in Courmayeur, where we all started 137 hours, 15 minutes, and 39 seconds ago. I am the 315th finisher of the 2014 Tor des Géants. After a couple days of emotion-less existence, a singular feeling rushes over me a minute or two after I finish: relief that it’s over.

Meghan Hicks - Tor des Geants - Finish

Finishing the Tor. Photo: iRunFar/Bryon Powell

***

I wish I could tell you I had a grand time making the big loop around the Aosta Valley. That this was the product of dreaming big and living bigger. That I learned lessons that have made me a better runner, and person. I did learn a lesson, but in this ultrarunning day and age of “more kilometers, more fun,” it might not be a lesson anyone wants to hear. This isn’t a story about can’t, about reaching a point where I could go no more. I finished the race, darn it. And if someone had told me I had to go 20 more kilometers and over two more passes, I probably could have made it there, too.

This is a story about biting off more than I wanted to chew. By the fourth day, my brain disconnected itself from my body and from the environment through which I was traveling. A coping mechanism, I suppose? Connections to the places through which I travel and the people with whom I race, that’s precisely why I do these things. Without a link to those during the Tor, I felt lost, purposeless, confused.

I want to be challenged in life. I, in fact, live for challenges. I learned through the Tor, though, that the challenge of an experience must not usurp the rest of that experience’s qualities. Mostly beauty, always some misery–that’s what ultrarunning and life are–but I don’t want mine to be only a beautiful misery.

Meghan Hicks

is iRunFar.com’s Senior Editor, the author of ‘Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running,’ and a Contributing Editor at Trail Runner magazine. The converted road runner finished her first ultramarathon in 2006 and loves using running to visit the world’s wildest places. For more information on Meghan and her adventures, please visit her personal website.

There are 28 comments

  1. @UltraMorgan

    I have been waiting for the story with as much anticipation as waiting for you to cross Malatra, descend to Bertone and on to Courmayeur.

    You haven't disappointed!

    And you haven't put me off either.

    Chapeau young lady!

  2. @runwillt

    A very real race report. Thanks for giving us a true glimpse into what it feels like to be in the middle of this giant race. I hope as time fades as with other races, you'll be able to cherish the positive memories while still keeping the life lessons learned. You haven't detracted me from moving this off or down my bucket list, but helped me realize better what it will take to accomplish this great task. Thank you Meghan.

  3. TropicalJohn

    There’s a common progression, from easy to adventurous to challenging to demanding to difficult to extremely difficult to what-the-hell-was-I-thinking to I’m-never-ever-gonna-do-this-again. Most of us mere mortals reach the end of our tether somewhere along this progression.

    But a few – like you: Meghan Hicks, Rock Star – reach beyond even that. It’s a place I’ve never been; I have no words for it. “Beautiful misery” seems like an apt description, but I don’t think I will ever go there so I’ll just have to take your word for it.

    Thanks for the beautiful write up!

  4. another_william

    Thank you for writing this report, Meghan. Great job out there. Do you have any plans to give the Tor another go when you're at peak fitness?

    Also, I love your wail. “Whyyyyyyyyyyyyy do youuuuuuuuuuu people shit everyyyyyyyyywhereeeeeeeee?”

  5. Sarah

    This story completely transfixed me. Bravo, Meghan. Here's a copy of what I just posted to FB to share the link:
    So many great scenes and powerful lines in this report of the 206-mile, 78K-of-climbing TdG by Meghan M. Hicks. Make time to read it! A sampling:
    "Inexplicably sometimes, an adventure climbs into my heart and takes up residence, without asking me if I would like it to live there."
    "Signing up for a race that I actually had about equal chances of not finishing as finishing? This fired me up."
    "I am overcome by a sense of helplessness, a feeling that, no matter how hard we try, we will never, can never be totally in charge of ourselves."
    "I fall over and over on the rocks down the back of this pass. They are slick like snot with water and cow shit."
    "This is a story about biting off more than I wanted to chew."…
    Really excellent, powerful stuff, Meghan. Reading it was the highlight of my day. Having just run 40 cumulative hours, it is a mind f*ck to imagine 137 hours. You continue to inspire and teach me about this sport and life.

  6. npedatella

    This is a fantastic report. Hopefully anyone considering doing TdG will read it, especially your closing remarks.

    I am curious, but how much of the race do you think you actually enjoyed? And, in retrospect would you do it again if you knew the outcome of your experience?

  7. rhorge

    What an incredible write-up! I couldn't look away and had to know what would happen next! The scale of this thing is beyond anything I can comprehend but you made it accessible. I love many aspects of IRunFar, but THIS article is quintessential of what I hunger for when I come to this website. I am totally full and blown away by your adventure and achievement. Nicely done!

  8. Meghan Hicks

    Thanks for the positive feedback, all. Up until now, I have kept most of my thoughts and feelings about my experience internalized, letting myself process and ruminate on my mind/body’s schedule. Externalizing it now is helping me let go of and move on from what was a really hard week. Because of this, your words mean a ton to me.

    @runwillt, I hope you run the Tor should you decide it’s for you! This report isn’t meant to dissuade anyone; I’d never want to do that. It’s just meant to be real. Thank you for reading it.

    @TropicalJohn, wow, sir, I don’t know what to say. Words like that from a man like you, I’m so grateful.

    @another_william, thanks for reading my report. The race organization has almost all of its ducks in a row; the course is incredibly natural and aesthetic. It’s a race that, in my personal opinion, deserves ‘icon’ status in the global ultrarunning community. I’m not sure that the race is for me, though. Since finishing, I haven’t felt any of that pang inside that I felt for it in all the years beforehand. I guess you can never say never, even though I’ve said never probably hundreds of times in the last three weeks. Hah! ;)

    @npedatella, I hope you continue to recover from your own Tor experience, and I can’t help but wonder if you’re going to give this race a second shot. :) I wouldn’t do the race a second time, I don’t think. But if I knew how hard it was going to be/the outcome of my experience before I started it this time, I would for sure still start/do the race. It’s probably impossible to actually live without regrets, but I try to emulate the concept as best as I can. There is so much to learn from an experience like this that I’d never want to give it all back. When we first finished, I said I could only recall about 60% of the race. Now that I’ve had time to pour over the course map, profile and aid-station lists, I’ve probably been able to recall another 15% of the race. So, of the 75% of the race that I can actually remember, I’d say I enjoyed half of that.

  9. StayingCivil

    Love the report, you convey your inner state and the atmosphere of the race and the people around you so well.
    Thank you for taking us along on this adventure, I felt the journey as I read. Without the numbing pain in my body though. You are an inspiration Megan!

  10. crankypants12

    it is only hurts the first time, just saying :) i was in pain for 3 weeks after my first Tor. I was happily (but slowly) running on Monday after my third. See you guys in Italy. It's … what's the word … beautiful

  11. Eric Ashley NJ

    Thank you for posting this, Meghan! The honesty of the report is as inspiring as the effort of the run. Huge heart, huge respect.

  12. monicagiuliani

    Wonderful Meghan! I am so happy you finished! I was following you all along! Great race report and really, when I met you were doing great! Come back next year, maybe for another race in the Italian Alps, or try the Tor again…
    Ciao and congratulazioni!

  13. yafizicist

    Thank you for sharing this unimaginable and heroic achievement. I am going to be running my first ultras next year, and it is humbling and inspiring to read how you faced such a huge challenge. It is amazing what you went through, even though you have mixed feelings. Recover well.

  14. kjz

    i love and appreciate this glimpse, Meghan… I think I said that before, but thanks so much for sharing. I have definitely found "more km does not equal more fun" for me all the time… but it's quite a thing to find that moving line as it changes with life and time and experiences and etc… thanks for continuing to inspire.

  15. adampratt343835405

    Compare and contrast: TRT vs. TDG. Funny that we have an appetite for similar terrain. I was hoping to run TDG with Italian friends in 2015 but it will probably have to wait until 2016 because of other travel plans. Reading this report makes me wonder if I should wait until 20NEVER.

    1. Meghan Hicks

      @adampratt343835405,

      Thanks for commenting, Adam! Great to ‘see’ you here. Tahoe Rim Trail versus Tor des Géants: apples versus a banana being held by a silver-glittered, purple and orange orangutan. ;) They are so different that you can’t do much more than laugh about trying to make a comparison. ’20NEVER,’ that makes me chuckle. As I said in a comment below, this article was not written to dissuade people from the Tor; it was rather meant to document my personal experience, to be real. Thanks for reading it.

  16. jdcheesman

    Great post, I really enjoyed reading that! But having read it I'm now not sure whether I want to try the Tor or not – on the one hand the sense of acheivement, but all that suffering…

    Still: Chapeau Meghan!

  17. @AlaskaJill

    Great report Meghan. I appreciate your candid descriptions and realness. Congrats again on a hard-earned finish.

    I also am contemplating the possibility of going back to Tor des Geants. It is *really hard* and a lot of effort to make, not to mention beyond my own skill set in ways that will require entirely focused training should I try to return. Still being injured and unable to run or bike four weeks after a failed attempt leaves a sting that swings more toward "never again" than "maybe." Still, it was an incredible experience while it lasted. After only 200km I hadn't slipped into extreme sleep deprivation yet, but I have been there and know how much it rips you apart … which I made efforts to sleep as much as I could afford. If only I could be faster and less clumsy! :-)

    Good luck with the MDS training. I have no doubt you'll do well. The Alps have become a bit of a white whale for me, although not nearly to the extent of Alaska … so I'm still safe. :P

  18. billgeist

    Thanks for sharing your TdG experience. Glad that you made it to the finish line. It is remarkable how many of the same thoughts and experiences that I had during the run. Although the outcome may not have effected you as you expected, I think that an experience like the TdG allows you to learn a lot about yourself. Keep up the running and writing!

  19. @frumioj

    Thanks Meghan for such a well-written account! I would love to do TdG but it may be too much for me to appreciate. Your words at the end of this resonate very deeply with me.

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