[Editor’s Note: The fifth edition of the Tor des Géants took place on the ridges and passes of Italy’s Aosta Valley from September 7 through 13, 2014. The 206-mile race features some 78,700 feet of climbing, and participants are given 150 hours to complete the route. A number of Americans and Canadians finished the race, and we include as many of their perspectives as we can in this article. Many who finish the Tor struggle to summarize their experiences due to the immensity of the event and the physical and emotional effort it requires. This article, thus, contains windows into each contributor’s experience: a moment, a few hours, a part of their race that means something to them. Our goal is to bring the human experience that is the Tor alive. We hope you enjoy it.]
Joe Grant — 105 hours, 31 minutes, 58 seconds
Luca and I stumble into Refugio L’Aroula, breathing heavily, soaked to the bone, and slightly overwhelmed entering the brightly lit, warm shelter. Our pace has synched over the last couple of hours of descending into the village, eyes transfixed on the rocky singletrack ahead, the beams of our headlamps piercing through the rainy, foggy night. I collapse onto a wooden chair in the corner next to a wood stove. I lean forward slightly, letting its warmth touch my cheeks, closing my eyes for a short moment of acute bliss. I unconsciously remove my shoes, socks, rain pants, and jacket to let them dry before taking in my surroundings.
Our host is a middle-aged woman, smiling and upbeat. She wraps a wool blanket over my shoulders and while pressing a compassionate hand on my back, offers me some hot vegetable soup. I have felt nauseous for the past 30 hours and not much food has stayed down, but I gladly accept. A few feet away from me is a table with the most wonderful spread of food I have seen the entire race, homemade fruit pies, pudding, polenta, cured meats, local cheeses, chocolate, tea, and juice all looking equally appetizing. For a short while, I make abstraction of the nausea, eating copiously.
Luca, who is Italian and has been listening to the conversation in the hut, informs me that this is not even an official checkpoint and that the people here simply want to welcome runners to help them on their journey. The generosity of the people from the Aosta Valley is astounding and this example of selfless acts of kindness is just one among many. We leave Refugio L’Aroula drier, warmer, nurtured, and all around better off than before we arrived.
Dima Feinhaus — 124 hours, 37 minutes, 35 seconds
The path from Oyace to Ollomont was steep. First 4,000 feet up then as much down. I started with Laurent, but he was faster and hiked away. I’m not that slow either and pass a good half a dozen people on the downhill. It’s getting dark and I get sleepy with it.
The life base at Ollomont is full of people: volunteers, runners, crews, medical personnel. They have a lot of food options and the whole menu in Italian, French, English, and Japanese. Chinese journalists are there too and I ask them how the Chinese contingent is doing. They say that five out of nine runners have dropped, but their fastest is about to finish.
I stuff myself up and go for a three-hour sleep. Maybe I’d be better off sleeping one to two hours at a time. I gamble to start on the trail at 1 a.m. with a hope of no more sleep until the finish in 50 kilometers.
I reach Rifugio Champillon at about 3 a.m. It’s full off sleepy and tired runners. Laurent is here too and he looks and feels totally in a la-la land. I pick him up and lead the way into the night. We hike and hike and hike. By the time we reach Saint-Rhemy-en-Bosses, we pass another half a dozen runners and the night is over. Hurray! We have the last pass, Col Malatra, left. Another 4,000 feet and it’s all downhill from there.
Laurent keeps talking in his heavily accented English. I understand half of his stories at best. I question his mental capacity, but then realize that mine is probably not much better. We have been running and hiking and crawling for five days by now with about 12 to 15 hours of sleep. But one story of his I understand. He tells me how hard he ran Tor des Géants in 2011, how he was hurting, and how he forgot to appreciate and enjoy the mountains. He won’t repeat that mistake ever again. I heartily agree.
Finally, we are on top of the Col Malatra. Oh my, that view of Mont Blanc, I wouldn’t exchange it for anything. Down to Courmayeur we go. It’s only 10 miles and all down.
Jan Kriska — 112 hours, 59 minutes, 19 seconds
The Tor is a classic race that is the pinnacle of human suffering, natural beauty, and international ultra competition. It has been known in Europe as ‘THE RACE’ along with the UTMB and definitely one of the five most iconic races on the planet along with Hardrock, Western States, Badwater, and UTMB.
I had a spot for UTMB this year that I got after four years of collecting points and applying. I passed on that slot in order to race Ötillö with my son (another crazy swim-run race in Sweden). Since I was in Europe already, I decided that I would use my time to run Tor des Géants.
I grew up in European mountains and raced in Europe–Swiss Irontrail, Norseman, Altriman.
Even though I am familiar with Alps, the long ascents and never-ending descents were over my head in the beginning. I was suffering in the altitude and as soon as we reached 7,000 feet my progression came to screeching halt. I battled constant nausea/vomiting for the first half of the race. I was to the point of bailing out. The only thing that kept me in the race was the breathtaking scenery and my wife who was flying from the USA to see me cross the finish line.
My legs were shot after the first 24 hours, but somehow short sleeps and cold showers provided the recovery. As the race progressed I hooked up with Jason Poole, my American journeyman. That made the race pass by easier. I got better at the end of the race and finished relatively strong in four days and 17 hours (81st).
I believe that this race is pushing human suffering to the highest level. I am still feeling the aftermath of the race- fluid retention (a combination of altitude sickness, salt retention, and protein depletion), muscle wasting, and fatigue.
Is it worth it? I believe it is. The beauty, natural and man made, was overwhelming. The organization of the race was superb. The volunteers were always there for you. The spectators were everywhere and pushing you through.
Would I do it again? We only have few of races like that in our tank. I think I do not want to empty my tank too early.
I would like to see more races in the USA that care about scenery and not distance.
At the end I was glad I was able to do it.
Beat Jegerlehner — 135 hours, 44 minutes, 38 seconds
I finish the perfectly made cappuccino. “How much?” The proprietor at the rifugio looks at me with a blank stare. “Money? For the cappuccino?” He waves off, “Nothing.”
I leave Rifugio Champillon around noon, into crystal clear and crisp air and a perfect sky, to climb the 8,900-foot Champillon Pass, the second-to-last in the race. A short, 900-foot climb from the rifugio, steep of course, as everything here, but pleasant. More pleasant than the steeper, 3,000-foot descent in just 2.4 miles that the other side will soon be–still moderate for the Tor.
I make my way up with my new-found friend Pieter from Belgium in tow. We met up 150 hard and difficult kilometers earlier, three days that now feel like a lifetime, when he decided it would be a good idea to follow me since I had finished all the previous Tors. It is his first time. Actually, it is his first 100-mile race as well. And 100k. Come to think of it, I have come away from every Tor with a new real friend, despite the language barriers–or maybe because of them.
We make our way up the col, discussing the remaining sections, which are easy if only because we are so close to the finish, a mere 26 or so miles. Along the way we pass hikers who encourage us with the typical “Bravi!” and “Forza!” As we crest the pass, Pieter shouts out, “Look! Mont Blanc!” The mountain majestically appears, towering beautifully over the smaller mountains surrounding the next valley. Our goal is finally in plain sight, Courmayeur just at the foot of the mountain. We stop to soak in the spectacular view.
At the pass marker, an older Italian man starts talking to us in Italian. With limited vocabulary and with help of his French-speaking friend, we tell him about our race. He asks our ages; Pieter is 26 and I am 45. He proudly exclaims he is 85 years old. I had mistaken him for being in his late 60s. Hugely inspiring, yet not surprising in the Alps, where people love the mountains, and mountains are are a part of everyday life, as I wish it would be for me. He wishes us luck as we drop into the valley on our way to the finish, into a very fierce and icy-cold wind coming from the glaciers, reminding us that we still are in a wild and rugged place.
As we drop into the valley, I am sad that soon this is over, the camaraderie, the electrifying atmosphere, the friendly Italian hospitality and their enthusiasm for the race and the racers, the epic climbs and struggles, and the epic views. But this sentiment soon passes as the trail becomes rocky and steep and requires my full attention.
Jason Poole — 119 hours, 13 minutes, 47 seconds
It was just another Thursday, ‘Giovedi’ in Italian, although I had been essentially thrashing my body for 96 hours. The Tor had been going smooth, until I simply squatted down to stretch my quadriceps after descending 1,000 meters in six kilometers off the Col Brison. Poor decision. When I stood up, I could barely bend my left leg. The inflammation in my left quadriceps was suddenly so severe that every painful step left me questioning whether I’d even finish the Tor. The next ‘basi vita,’ or life base, Ollomont (283.5 kilometers), was very close. “Quick massage, refuel, and go. I’ll be fine,” I told my sleep-deprived self.
I began the climb to Rifugio Champillon with determination. I can work through this; the pain will subside. As I approached the rifugio, however, the pain persisted. Intensified. As I entered this sanctuary in the sky, I politely asked for an ice pack. Then I begged for an ice pack… or even just an ice cube! “I’m sorry. We don’t have any ice,” said the hostess. And then, “Uno minuti!” Moments later, she emerged from a back room with a frozen bottle of Italian liquor. She graciously handed me the bottle and instructed me to use it as a form of ice conditioning for my quad.
The iced bottle was a temporary fix, but I struggled as I continued climbing to the 2,709-meter Col Champillon. Then, disaster. I could not run or even walk down from the col. I stumbled. I wrapped my quad with a self-adhesive bandage, but it didn’t help. What should have been another fairly benign 1,000-meter descent turned into hours of agonizing distress. Physically and mentally crippled, I hobbled into the ‘punti di ristoro’ or supply point of Ponteilles in tears. “WHAT has happened to me? HOW did this happen?”
We often take communication for granted, but when you are in a foreign land and can’t properly speak the language, every attempt at effective communication becomes labored. More effort for an already exhausted brain. I tried to explain my situation, how my leg simply would not bend. But my pitiful attempt at Italian didn’t make any sense. That’s when an older gentleman stepped up and instructed me, via sign language, to sit my rear end down and stretch out my leg. He then began to analyze my leg muscle with his hands and proceeded to perform some crazy sort of ‘whapping’ massage on the affected area. All the while, he was emphatically lecturing me (in Italian), instructing me on what was wrong with my leg and what I should do next. I explained to another volunteer that I didn’t speak Italian and that I couldn’t understand. It didn’t matter. The older man continued to preach to me with gusto, confident that he knew what he was doing and that I must continue on to the finish in Courmayeur. No exceptions.
As he finished his work, he helped me to my feet and escorted me out of the supply point for several hundred meters. After repeatedly thanking him, I attempted to shake his hand. Instead, he embraced me with a gigantic Italian bear hug, nearly squeezing my lungs empty, and slapped me on the back as I continued down the trail.
Unparalleled hospitality: this is what the Tor is to me.
Nick Pedatella — 108 hours, 48 minutes, 45 seconds
When asked for a place to nap for a short time, the worker at Rifugio Bertone looked puzzled before pointing downhill and saying that it was only four kilometers downhill to the finish in Courmayeur. He clearly didn’t understand my present mental and physical state. I had just spent the last hour stumbling along the trail, barely able to stay awake, all the while being passed by, and unable to keep pace with, a couple groups of hikers.
Though four kilometers downhill should be a fairly simple task, after nearly 330 kilometers and 28 hours without sleep (after several days of only two or three hours sleep), this seemed rather insurmountable. Though he took a bit of convincing, the aid-station worker eventually relented and I was able to lay down on a bench for a 20-minute nap before slowly making my way to the finish.
Of course, in retrospect, one thinks, How could I not have gone a measly four kilometers downhill without stopping? It is moments like these, when a normally simple stretch of running seems nearly impossible, that events like Tor des Géants instill a sense of humbleness.
Bruce Grant — 143 hours, 25 minutes, 48 seconds
There is so much we take away from the run that it is hard to focus on any smaller component, but with this being my third time at the race, the one consistent feature for me has been the amazing support, enthusiasm, and kindness that the people of the Valle d’Aosta show toward the runners. The entire valley the race runs through gets behind the race and bristles with energy whether we run through larger cities, small villages, or remote farmhouses in alpine pastures. For me, I hold memories of families cheering us on as they picnicked in fields; children serving us water beside the trail; old women at bus stops waving and smiling to us; and grizzled farmers with a gleam in their eyes yelling, “Forza! Bravi!” as we traipse across their pastures.
Then there are the closer encounters with those we can speak to in broken French or sometimes English and spend more time with in refreshment stations–people eager to hear where we are from and how we are enjoying the race. Especially keen are those who have visited or know someone who has been to Canada, where we live: they are as eager to express how much they enjoyed their visit to our country as we are now to tell how fantastic the Valle d’Aosta has been for us.
My impression is that people there have a unique understanding and respect of trail runners and the challenge we are taking on, which I feel is a reflection of the culture that exists in the European mountain communities where people are active participants rather than merely onlookers. When we are climbing a mountain pass, they are supporting us in our natural ambition to achieve the summit, rather than thinking we are just crazy! The race is so very hard, but a smiling face or someone who enthusiastically goes out of their way to bring you some hot food along the way can make such a difference in how you approach things.
This is a ridiculously difficult course filled with physical obstacles and great beauty, but I find it is the people of the Valle d’Aosta that give this event its soul.
Martha Grant — 143 hours, 26 minutes, 25 seconds
Since the 2010 inception of the Tor des Géants, I have been immersed in my husband’s photos and stories of the unbelievable beauty and unforgiving terrain that this monster of a race provides. Like vampires tasting blood for the first time, once-bitten runners have been drawn back again and again to feast upon those succulent 330 kilometers. While the ‘race’ aspect of TdG never appealed to me, a mid-pack runner who dabbles in ultra distances, the idea of a week-long jaunt in the Italian Alps struck a melodious chord. So when my husband and I were trying to decide how to celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary, I insisted on the six-day, all-inclusive running holiday also known as Tor des Géants.
The mountains are truly breathtaking in those last days of summer, with yellowing grasses, wildflower seed heads, and blue-grey rocks below a bluebird sky. Crowds of locals hiked up the first few passes, hollering, “Bravi! Bravissima!” at the passing snake of ascending runners. Finally this long-awaited event was underway and I was ready to indulge all my senses.
But after delighting in those first blissful 24 hours of the race, the reality of the task at hand became evident. These mountains are steeper than anything I have ever encountered and, with around 25 mountain passes in total, the learning curve was equally steep. Although I was consistently strong on the ascents throughout the race, the descents soon filled me with dread as the soles of my feet began to slough off and my knee screamed out with every downhill step. Right from the beginning, I made errors with both the management of sleep and of time spent in life bases which eventually played havoc with my enjoyment of the route and with my cut-off time cushion.
But the saving grace for me was my unplanned trail partner–my husband, Bruce. Despite our intentions to run TdG separately, we stuck together, step for step, for the entire route. Having already had two stellar, top-40 finishes under his belt, Bruce stepped into the role of ‘Tor Guide’ this year and offered me both expertise and encouragement for the entire 144-hour event. Although I set the pace and explored the limits of my strength, he gets the credit for keeping me in the positive mental state that allowed me to push ever forward. Very few couples could withstand the 24/7 stress that this event demands but we seemed to thrive in it, becoming stronger as a couple with every mountain pass.
The Tor taught me that 20 years is not enough.
Deb McInally — 122 hours, 7 minutes, 18 seconds
I suspect it could take weeks before I can succinctly describe the TdG experience. Physically I’m recovered but mentally I’m a bit raw, speechless, and muddled. What I can clearly convey in spite of emotional fatigue is that the Tor des Géants is a beautiful, breathtaking race and not only for its stunning landscape but for the people of the Aosta Valley. The locals are genuine and gracious; along the route they set up stands of fruit, espresso, and apple cider. They cheered endlessly, rang cowbells, and played the accordion. The volunteers at the refugios and life bases were incredible, helpful, and kind. I was racing without a crew and having the volunteers there to help out was amazing.
One moment that I will always embrace is when I arrived at Ollomont, the last life base that was 50 kilometers until the finish. I was so tired and all I wanted to do was sleep. The volunteer could see that I was in no shape to carry my heavy drop bag up a flight of stairs. He was so kind that not only did he haul my drop bag up the stairs, but he also asked if I needed anything else. All I needed was sleep and some hot water for my Mountain House meal that I had been dreaming about on the trail. A few minutes later, he arrived back with hot water. I know that doesn’t sound like a big deal but after racing for 100-plus hours with 10-plus hours of sleep without any crew it made all the difference in the world. It takes thousands of volunteers to make this race happen and I guarantee every participant, all 740, were touched at least once by the generosity and kindness of the locals and the volunteers. They are what make the TdG a journey and not a race.
Meghan Hicks — 137 hours, 15 minutes, 39 seconds
I had previously asked my crew, Bryon Powell, to set me up a sleep station at the Eaux Rousses refreshment point, what is essentially the 50-mile point of the Tor des Géants. As I descend toward the aid station, with its lights glowing into the night and visible for the last couple thousand feet of downhill, I let my body slow down and chill out.
I think about how amazing it will feel to crawl into a sleeping bag, underneath this huge, starry sky. I have no idea what time it is. All I know is it’s nighttime and I’ve done a lot of powerhiking and running today. (Or yesterday? Or both? Does it really matter?)
Bryon’s found a dark spot, behind some trees, just 30 feet or so from the aid-station tent and next to an ambulance. I chuckle to myself, They could just roll me in there and put me out of my misery. Naw, I don’t feel that bad yet. But I probably will soon.
I climb out of my pack and shoes and into my sleeping bag, delving into a bottle of First Endurance Ultragen, a bowl of soup with pasta, and a slice of pizza. I let my mind wander.
I’ve come very far. I have much, much farther to go. Already my toes are trashed. I am slow. I will get even slower. But I am going forward! I love this quiet, the solitude. Night time is the best time at the Tor. I love sleep. I love these stars. Please just let me finish this race. Please…
I drift off. Unconsciousness lasts for a just few minutes. I awake with a start and the sensation of close company. I pull the Buff from my eyes, expecting a visit from an aid-station worker or Bryon, checking on me. I’m surprised instead to see a little fox with rusty-red fur, about four feet away and eying the food buffet I’ve laid out next to me.
I react instinctually, defensively, yelling, “Go away!”
The fox hisses and runs off. I sit there for a moment, in the warmth of my sleeping bag, wondering if I’ll be able to drift off again. The fox reappears. Nope, no more sleeping here.
The race has set up a tent for napping here at Eaux Rousses, with two rows of maybe 20 cots. I decide to try it out. Flourescent lights glow brightly, and an Italian racer yaps on his cell phone while laying on a cot, and the attendants tell me I’m only allowed to sleep for 30 minutes. I lay down. I know I won’t be able to sleep in this situation, but I let my body lie immobile, gathering strength for what’s ahead.
A little while later, I am back on the trail, my nap plans deflated by circumstance. I do not know it yet, but my sleep will be foiled over and over in this race. Tonight’s nap is just the beginning of one very long week of sleep torture.
Nickademus Hollon — 76 hours, 29 minutes, 38 seconds
Ollomont is a quiet town and even more so if you happen to run through it at 3:00 a.m. I trudge up through the empty city streets, turning off my headlamp as I reach the street lights. I turn the last corner into the life base and recall what Oscar Perez Lopez, the winner of the 2012 TdG, told me earlier in the year, “The true race doesn’t start until Ollomont.”
Antoine Guillame and Christophe Le Saux, both from France, are just leaving the life base, holding second and third place in the race. I’d be literally seconds from the podium if I had a quick turnaround. But it would do me no good to catch them now, with 50 kilometers to go. I had to be strategic. I check in and immediately my crew ushers me to a warm bed in the upstairs of the building. I take off my pack and lay down in bed. Despite the excitement of potentially placing on the podium, I sleep almost immediately. Twenty minutes later, my girlfriend shakes me awake and hands me a hot bowl of chicken-broth pasta loaded with stringy fontina cheese, just as I’d asked. I wolf down the hot, stringy cheese soup. It is great to get some real food in me. I ready my pack and take time to eat a little more. Consistency will take second place, not a quick turnaround.
It had been an entire year since I’d been on this climb, but the moment I step out of the small town, I can almost envision the entire route before my eyes. The gradual ascent through the forest, the seemingly endless switchbacks, the house halfway up, the fire road, the singletrack through cow pastures, and eventually the even-steeper fire road to Rifugio Champillon. I know this race. I break out of the forest and onto the final farm road when I see their lights. I am no more than a mile off from them, despite the 20 minutes I’d taken to sleep, thus proving my strategy was working. Surprised that the urge to compete is still so strong after 65 hours of running, I feel eager and excited and badly want to run after them and pass them then and there. But with 40 kilometers to go, that would be a childish and costly mistake. “No, I will overtake them slowly,” I say to myself, sliming down another disgusting gel.
Closer to the hut, their lights are now out of sight and my mind begins to wander. A wandering mind at 4:30 a.m. in the morning after 67 hours of running is a terrible thing. Sleep deprivation strikes hard. I thought I’d fought through the worst of it earlier in the night. But TdG isn’t that easy, it doesn’t let you just ‘get by.’ No. You’ve got to fight tooth and nail to get through this race. I stared ahead at the trail which spirals and whirls as if I’d been stuck on an amusement-park ride for too long. Then on the final switchback to the hut, I see an old man on the side of the farm road. He has a table out and is displaying a variety of books for sale. I walk over, toward his table, and I hear my pole stab into the dirt beneath me. Click. The sound consumes me.
“Who am I?”
“What am I doing?”
“Fighting for second place at the 2014 Tor des Géants.”
“Where am I?”
“About to go up and over Col Champillon.”
I interview myself out loud while listening to the click of my poles. Focus on the present. Gain back control of my mind.
Click. Clack. Click. Clack. I turn around to get one last glance of the old man and his books, but he’s vanished and probably never existed.
The turnaround at the rifugio is quick. I drink hot tea and sign their poster. As I exit, I see Antoine and Christophe’s lights hovering only a minute or so above my own as I traverse the steep switchbacks. Catching them will be a slow process, I remind myself. I come over the second to last rise and see the full moon resting perfectly on the saddle of the col, illuminating the valley in front of me.
“Who was I?”
“Where was I headed?”
“To the moon.”
Nicki Rehn — 115 hours, 53 minutes, 15 seconds
I have once described the Tor as a “glorious nightmare lived out in a fantasy of spectacular.” But, as the years go by, it is becoming more glorious and less nightmare. Mostly, TdG has become huge collection of unforgettable moments–drinking grappa shots with locals in a high refugio, dancing with a band of accordion-playing men on the side of a deserted ski hill, starry nights alone on a col, a local trail angel who seems to have adopted me, an ever-growing European family, 1,200 beautiful volunteers who give up their week to love on us 24/7, and the feeling that three loops around this amazing valley is gradually making me a little bit Aostan. The 330-kilometer ultramarathon part just seems like a necessary condition (an agonizing and phenomenal one, nonetheless) for the greatest race experiences possible.
Summiting the 3,000-meters Col Malatra at 1:30 a.m. was the highlight of the 2014 race for me. I had been going for about 113 hours and, like most people, I had not slept for the last 30. Reason and sanity had long been pushed aside. As I negotiated the tricky via ferrata and precarious cliffs of the final few vertical meters, a hand reached down from the dark and pulled me up to the narrow landing on the top. Four young Italian men were out hiking in the night and they produced some red wine and let me drink straight from the bottle to celebrate having crested the 25th and final pass.
The tiny slit in the headwall that creates Col Malatra gives way to an expansive view of the Mont Blanc massif which was completely lit up by moonlight under a star-filled sky. It was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen and a fitting backdrop to the inevitable end of this amazing journey.