[Editor’s Note: The U.K.’s Sabrina Verjee won the 2022 Tor des Géants in Italy, setting a women’s course record in the process. In this article, Sabrina shares the experience. If you’d like to read more of Sabrina’s work, check out her book “Where There’s a Hill,” available from Vertebrate Publishing, Waterstones, Audible, and Amazon.]
The Tor des Géants had a lot to live up to. My expectations of this race were high, fueled by an appetite for the Italian Alps that had grown over the two years that I’d been kept waiting. I had gained an entry in 2020 but sadly due to COVID-19 they’d had to cancel the race. I was somewhat busy in 2021 with two Wainwrights Round attempts (one successful!) so 2022 it was.
Apart from anything else I was attracted to the name of the race — tour of the giants — what did this mean?
Is it the giant loop of 330 kilometers around the Aosta Valley? Or the giant hills that you pass between being spoiled by unblemished views of the Matterhorn, Mont Blanc, and Monte Rosa? Or do you become a giant once you have tackled this claimed toughest race in the world?
The Tor experience is unique — I was met by conflicting messages of welcome and “you’re not invited” — the one-line response as to whether I should attend the elite runners’ presentation. It was unclear when and where you were allowed to receive help from your support, so we just decided that Ben (my husband) would meet me infrequently to make sure we didn’t risk rule infringement.
The registration process was brilliant — a distracted Italian granny held the key to your queue placement. She was the guardian of the sticky numbers, but it was like a game of hide and seek as she seemed to run away from me every time I approached for a number! Once you’d won the sticky number game, you could go and relax in a café and check the app on your phone that showed when you were due to collect your race bib — I thought this was genius!
After registering we headed back by bus to our campervan on the Aiguille Noire campsite. An early dinner and I crawled into bed for a nice restful sleep before the race, but no sooner had I settled in than I found my brain vibrating in my skull to the pounding beats of the end-of-year disco at the campsite next door! It went on until midnight — thankfully, the race start was not too early — 10 a.m.
Courmayeur to Valgrisenche: 50k
It was a little chilly on the start line as we waited for the sun to rise high enough — we were all scantily clothed anticipating the hot day. I had a leisurely start, not wanting to boss my way to the front, just happy to relax into any kind of rhythm the throng of excited runners would allow. I am always amused to see people pointlessly expending energy so early on, trying to elbow their way to the front.
On these races, it’s important just to start comfortably; you have all the time in the world to overtake. I tried to make conversation, thinking it would be pretty dull if no one talked to me for the entire four days of racing! Everyone was too focused on breathing hard and pushing for the front.
The first climb is steep, but as you push up to Col d’Arp, things open out and you can appreciate the views. You top out at Baite di Youlaz for the first refreshment point, a chance to scan what you’ll be offered on this race — dark chocolate, dried apricots, salty crackers, biscuits, cheese, and dried meat — a veritable feast! I stuff various bits in my gob — I’m not fussy. Then I let gravity take me and I accelerate down the most incredible grassy descent, hoovering half the field in front of me in one go.
I arrived at La Thuile. Ben had not been allowed into the support area so couldn’t help me with my water bottles. At least I managed to grab another stash of Mountain Fuel jellies and with these in my belly, I felt strong up the next climb to Rifugio Deffeyes. It starts to sink in that this is how life would be for the next few days — huge, huge climbs and long, blissful descents. I was having fun! What’s not to enjoy — there’s the gentle glow of sunshine on my skin, breathtaking views in every direction, and my legs are feeling great.
The climb to Col de la Crosatie was fun — a little technical at the top but I couldn’t really call it a scramble, and there are even helpful ropes and metal handholds, but they’re not really necessary. Then down we go again from 2,826 meters altitude to the Valgrisenche life base at 1,664 meters.
Valgrisenche to Cogne: 58k
Suddenly I’m wondering where everybody’s gone. The life base is pretty empty, I’m not even sure there was another racer there. I’m conscious not to do my usual trick of five seconds in and out of the life base. After all, there’s over 50k before the next one, so I sit down and try to eat a proper meal — pasta something, I can’t remember that one. I realize my appetite is not brilliant, so I take my time.
I changed my wet sweaty T-shirt for a fresh long-sleeved one and promptly got shouted at for changing in the life base — apparently, this is unhygienic — I get their point, but I imagine this rule will quickly be abandoned when the marquee is filled with hundreds of racers instead of just little me! Time to leave, I think!
I’ve recced this bit so I know I’m going to enjoy this lovely gradual runnable ascent — first along the singletrack forested path, and then opening out into the grassy slopes to Col de Fenêtre. Now it’s dusk but it is still warm, and I’m suddenly reminded that I’m actually in a race as I overtake Martin Perrier of Switzerland. I thought this was a little strange, as I don’t normally catch people going uphill, but he tells me as I pull away that he’ll see me on the downhill, as he’s a good descender. I don’t doubt that for a second, as he’s ended up here somehow!
Sure enough, in the dark of the night, as I fumble my way down the first steep, rocky section, Martin comes hooning by in a flash of light and he’s gone! I pick my way down the next 400 meters and feel quite slow and clumsy, but as it starts to become less steep and more traily, I gather momentum and soon I’m in Rhêmes-Notre-Dame.
Now I am wondering what comes next — it’s no great surprise after a long descent that we are heading back up — but how far? I’d asked Ben to meet me at Eaux Rousses and had given him a rough guide on timing — somewhere between 11 p.m. and 1 a.m. — but as the climb keeps going and going, I realize it will most likely be the latter!
Sometime later, I pop out at Col Entrelor at 3,002 meters. It’s a beautiful starry night and now I get to run downhill again — wheee! This is an incredibly long and gentle descent of 1,300 meters over 12k, getting a little steeper and more technical at the end as we drop through the pine forest and into Eaux Rousses. I arrive at 12.46 a.m. I’m not impressed with Ben’s food offerings — a three-day-old Danish pastry, old stale snacks leftover from his adventure race in August, and some crisps. Unfortunately, he’d not been able to get to a supermarket yesterday as it was Sunday, and they were all shut.
However, there’s more to it than that — I’ve simply lost my appetite completely and the thought of putting any food in my mouth makes me nauseated. I also suddenly, rather urgently, need the loo. Ben tells me there’s a portaloo just outside the marquee — I try to open the door, but it is firmly held shut with a cable tie. It feels like forever as Ben is frantically trying to saw through it with a car key while the organizers are trying to find some scissors!
I’m part comforted and part on edge as I know the next bit — I recced it. It’s a very long, gradual ascent to Col Loson, but at 3,299 meters this is the highest part of the course, and I can see my body is just not dealing well with the altitude. I start out gently. Aware that I am already very calorie depleted, I force a Mountain Fuel jelly in. It definitely hit my legs — with ease I am suddenly passing Martin uphill again —he must have passed me while I was faffing around trying to go to the loo!
There are other lights in the distance too that I’m gaining on with every step — very encouraging. I take on another Mountain Fuel jelly. I pass another runner — I haven’t seen this one yet, he doesn’t seem quite right. “Are you okay?” I ask. He says yes, so I continue. A few minutes later I can hear an incessant and repetitive sound of projectile vomiting — perhaps 20 times. But I look back, and he’s still moving! Once the awful sound stops echoing around, I shout back, “Are you sure you’re okay?” “Yes,” he says and he continues to press on.
As I descend the steeper, rockier top part, it’s no surprise to see Martin again! He beats me into Rifugio Vittorio Sella, the next checkpoint by nine minutes — wow, the man really can descend! Once again in this refuge, I ignore what is going on around me. It doesn’t matter that I’m the second lady and that I’ve gained ground on Silvia Trigueros (three-time winner of the Tor) or that Martin has overtaken me. I have to eat — if I don’t eat then my race is over.
So, I sit in the refuge and chat to the Volontors (volunteers on the Tor) while very slowly putting one piece of pasta into my mouth at a time and chewing. “You’re not leaving until you’ve put a decent dent in this bowl,” I tell myself. Then as I leave, I cram as much dark chocolate and dried apricots as I can fit in my little mouth (even though the very thought of this is making me feel sick) and I chew on this for the next 10 minutes, slowly absorbing the calories.
I’m glad I hadn’t recced this next bit — this next bit was crap! A very technical, bog-infested, rocky, pathless terrain. Well, that was where the GPX track was taking me — where were the yellow flags? Can’t see a sign of these anywhere! Am I lost? Then I can see two other headtorches — one coming back toward me and the other running around like a headless chicken — okay so, not just me then.
I’m not going to waste time, so I continue the descent on the GPX track on the pathless muckfest. It’s slow — I’m not making good progress and it’s a real ankle-breaker. However, I was glad I persisted because I gained sight of the yellow flags with their handy reflective tape just to my right and got back on track — except this path was really not much better!
Cursing my way into Valnontey, I thought if there’s a reason not to do this race again, it’s this section!
Cogne to Donnas: 45k
It’s 6.15 a.m. as I arrive in Cogne. It’s a little chilly now. I see everyone else with their “trailer assistance” (this was a funny mistranslation of race support), but where’s mine? Not here. So I go and get some hot food and I am aware that I’m not really with it and I am being inefficient and useless. Do I want more clothes? Do I want to sleep? I don’t want any food, but I have to eat. So eventually, after an unproductive faff, I leave. I meet Marco Gubert on the way out — we are both confused as there is a noticeable lack of yellow flags — where the hell are we going? Suddenly I remember that I recced this with Kim Collison, so I know we just have to follow the river for a while. I break into a little trot and pull away from Marco. The sun is up now and annoyingly I start to feel sleepy — everyone else is waking up, and I’m like a zombie. “Come on Sabs wake up, it’s a beautiful day!” I can hear a group of runners catching up with me. I sink a caffeine Mountain Fuel jelly and then put in a little more effort.
On the descent to Rifugio Dondena, I catch up with a few of the Tor des Glaciers runners we chat a little and it lifts my spirits. At the refuge, I’m acutely aware of how little food I’ve eaten over the last 12 hours and still, I have no appetite, in fact, I just feel nauseated. I could press on, but I know what will happen if I don’t put more fuel in the tank, so I make my way to the seated dining area and I gratefully receive a bowl of hot food.
It’s very tasty but I just don’t feel like eating it, so I make myself take a least a few spoonfuls, and jealously watch the chap next to me devour an entire bowl. I’ve not even made a dent in mine, so I decide to have a nap for five minutes. I rest my head on the table and then when I wake up, I try again — three more spoonfuls. I thank the lovely Volontors for their hospitality and I leave.
Although I didn’t eat nearly enough, I certainly felt a bit more vigor in my legs and I gathered momentum down this very long descent. The altitude drops quickly from Finestra di Champorcher at 2,826 meters down to Donnas at 322 meters. The trail is in some parts quite technical, following the river with uneven, rocky steps and tree-root trip hazards, but at least it’s downhill and I’m moving well. I’m enjoying the gradual increase in temperature as I descend but as I approach Bard — a beautiful medieval quarter — the heat is becoming uncomfortable and by Donnas, it’s red hot.
Donnas to Gressoney St Jean: 54k
I spent a fair bit of time here trying to cool off, eat, and drink plenty of fluids before embarking on what I knew was going to be the toughest ascent of the course, from 322m all the way up to Rifugio Coda approximately 2,250m and marking the halfway point of the course.
The climb was tough! It was technical and energy-sapping; it took over four hours. I arrived at Coda at dusk and needed a sleep. I tried to eat something — polenta, I think — but managed only two spoonfuls. I found a bed and asked the volunteers to wake me after an hour. However, I was woken up after only 10 minutes or so by the loud slamming of the refuge door, so I got up. By then, Marco had arrived, so we left together in the still, beautiful moonlit night. We were well-matched on pace — I was slightly quicker downhill and Marco stronger on the ups, but we stopped in the refuges together, taking time to eat as much as we could.
At Rifugio Barma, we passed Silvia (first lady) who was sleeping, but she overtook us later while we were stopped for food and a five-minute kip. At La Gruba, we had caught up with two more runners and Silvia, who was in the support point when we arrived. I struggled with the ascent up Colle Lazoney (2,387m) and Marco pulled away. However, I managed to catch up by Gressoney on the descent. Here I saw Paul Tierney on the Glaciers route also in the support point with Sarah McCormack.
Gressoney-Saint-Jean to Valtournenche: 33k
I was excited by the yoghurt I found in the support area and managed to eat half the pot, but not much else. I left promptly and once again caught up with Marco on the flat. We climbed to Rifugio Alpenzu together, but I stopped there for another five-minute nap while he went on.
Up to Col Pinter in the gorgeous sunshine, down to Champoluc. Here I drank a Red Bull and ate some dark chocolate, which pepped me up, but I was caught by Juan Jose Larrotcha. I was wondering how long this inappetence would go on for, as it was really making this unnecessarily difficult. My mind was distracted by the stunning views between Col de Nannaz (2,773 meters) and Col des Fontaines (2,696 meters) and I really enjoyed the descent down to Valtournenche, the penultimate life base.
Valtournenche to Ollomont: 48k
Finally, Ben has come up with the goodies — a beef burger! Oh my goodness, I actually want to eat something, nothing ever tasted so good. Some skinny fries too. This signified the turning point in my race — getting some calories into my depleted body. “I hate you!” exclaimed Marco as I’m stuffing my face next to him. He’s joking, of course, he’s just jealous of my beef burger. We leave together but Marco is on some mad mission, he’s marching angrily up the hill. I think the pace is too quick but my legs are now full of energy, so I surprise myself by keeping up. “What’s wrong?” I ask? “They didn’t wash my socks!” he responds.
I’m trying not to laugh but, really, I am amused that he thought his support team had time to drive between the life bases, sort out all his things, and wash and dry his running socks in time for him to wear them! I imagine he’s starting to hurt now and a bit grumpy. That makes it all the easier to leave him behind when I spot that red T-shirt in the distance.
Although it’s too far to be sure, I make myself believe that it’s Damian Hall. There are a few reasons why this excites me. Firstly, I know that Damian was running at the front end of the race so this likely means I’ve made some ground up to the frontrunners. Secondly, I’m quite keen to catch up and have some good banter. And thirdly, yes, I would quite like to beat him! So not only have I got freshly fueled legs, but I’ve now got a carrot on a stick.
Some two hours later of running really quite fast, I’ve still not caught a glimpse of that red T-shirt again. Damn it, am I hallucinating?! Oh well, it doesn’t matter, because it’s done the trick I am motoring along and I’ve not even noticed that it’s got dark as I reach Vareton (2,300 meters). The Volontors are delighted to tell me that Silvia left only a few minutes ago. I’m not surprised, I’ve been running like a lunatic!
It’s easy to find her in the dark with headtorches. The ground is grassy and undulates with little ups and downs — it’s nice to have company and I strike up a conversation. She’s happy to chat and together we follow the yellow flags until suddenly there are no yellow flags but instead a large amount of cow poo. Silvia heads off in the opposite direction, I call her back, she ignores me, but I know what’s happened — the cows have eaten the flags. I saw one with a remnant in its mouth yesterday. I continue in my direction dodging cow pats, and soon I see the yellow flags, so I shout to her again. I continue slowly so that she can catch up. It’s not the way I want to win the race, by my rival getting lost! I start to regret my decision as we head up to Fenêtre de Tsan and realize that Silvia is pushing the pace uphill — can I keep up?
Luckily, we summit quickly (2,736 meters), and I’m more comfortable as the stronger descender. At the next refuge — Rifugio Magià— at 11:35 p.m., Silvia decides to stop for a sleep, but I feel okay, so I drink an espresso and go on alone. I’m quite excited now — alone in the darkness, just me and the yellow flags and this mysterious route that I’ve not done before. Rifugio Cuney was a bit of a climb and it started to rain. I pulled on my poncho and carried on.
I was really quite disorientated on this part of the route in the dark clag. I was confused about whether I was going up or down and it really felt like I was going in one giant circle. I just quietly clung to the hope that these yellow flags would indeed lead me to the next refuge. Eventually, at 2 a.m., they did, and I arrived at Bivacco Rosaire Clermont, and then a small incline to Col de Vessonaz, followed by a long descent. At first, the descent was down scree in large switchbacks, and then some grassy trails, then following a river through fields and forests, which did seem to be endless. Eventually, I popped out of the woods into the urban Oyace.
I’m pleased to see Ben. He feeds me spinach gnocchi, tomato soup, and blueberries. I’m hungry at first but then I don’t want anymore, and I suddenly run to the toilets and vomit. I only made it to the sink, and I want to wash it away quickly before Ben realizes what’s in it. But I’m too late. “Have you been eating grapes?!” he asks. “It’s blueberries,” I try to get away with … “You’re right,” I admit, as I remember enjoying a handful of grapes at the last checkpoint. They were so sweet too. Bugger, how could I have been so stupid … they clearly don’t agree with me. Flashback to the Wainwrights Round — well maybe, it’s a lucky omen?
It’s still dark when I leave, about 4.30 a.m., but I can’t find the way out of the support point. I did a circle of it up on the road and back around, but nothing seemed to make sense. Eventually a kind Volontor took me out of the back of the sports hall to the little grassy track that ran parallel to the road. It’s gray and drizzling, the track deteriorates into a boggy, rocky mess. This is a deviation we had to take in order to avoid a landslide. I had thought it would be faster, given it was 4k shorter with 700 meters less height gain, but now I am not so sure! I follow the narrowest forest trail with a steep dropoff to the left and there are so many pinecones on the ground that it’s like running on marbles! I fall over almost every other step, or at least that’s what it feels like. There are a few little ups and downs and then I am on the road to Ollomont.
Ollomont to Courmayeur: 50k
Martin’s sleeping horizontally on a table in the life base, which amuses me. I am sure there are more comfortable places! His amazing support team have gone to a posh patisserie in Aosta and brought the most beautiful cakes, but he doesn’t want them, so they offer them to me. I don’t need to be asked twice to dig in — Black Forest gateau, half a tiramisu, and some pistachio cake — the most calories I’ve had all race!
Martin and I leave together up the penultimate climb, Champillon. At first, I’m okay, but then Martin starts to pull away as the fatigue hits — I’ve only had about 20 minutes of sleep in the last 70 hours. I know I’ve got to do something, but I am so tired. I stop and sit on a bench but then I see a guy with a huge backpack hiking, so I decide to try and keep up with him and start a conversation. Frederico says he’s only going as far as the refuge, enough to get me to my next shot of espresso.
The coffee got me to the summit. On the way down, I started having this repetitive Déjà-vu experience — I was sure I’d descended these trench-like switchbacks before, yet when I thought about it I hadn’t recced this part so that was not possible. This was another sign of how sleep deprived I was, but I was managing to progress at a good speed, so I pressed on. The descent to Saint-Rhémy-en-Bosses was gradual and easy — with some flattish, wide, grassy tracks — and I was able to muster some speed through this section.
It was great to see Ben in this support point and I was eating well — a delicious chicken burger and chips. There was only 30k left to go, I was fifth overall and first lady. On the climb up to Col Malatrà, I kept falling asleep on my feet and found myself burbling random words to the grass when I thought I was talking to Ben! I had to remind myself that it wasn’t enough to have done the last 300k so well and end up in this position — I still had to finish the race. So, I decided to focus on a more immediate goal — I wanted to get the Strava segment up Col Malatrà. Yes, I knew that was not going to be realistic at all, but in the grand scheme of things, it didn’t matter. I just needed to try.
It was grey and mizzling and a little chilly, but my poncho was doing a grand job of keeping me warm. The summit did not disappoint, as the weather started to clear and the sunshine broke through. I loved the descent: grassy trods weaving across little streams and round rocks — all very runnable — and the home stretch along the river with a few minor undulations. The final 5k down the technical, steeper, rooty, and rocky track was a bit painful as tendonitis in my left shin had been ramping up in the last few hours, but I grit my teeth and bore it. I was excited to finally reach the starting point in Courmayeur after 80 hours and 19 minutes.
I was welcomed home by a small crowd of Italians shouting “Brava, prima donna.” I had mixed feelings about being called a “prima donna,” but the literal translation is “first lady,” which I was delighted to be, and even more chuffed with beating the women’s course record by five hours.
If you’ve enjoyed reading this race report and you’re interested to find out more about me, how I got into ultrarunning, and a bit about my Wainwright’s Round record, then you might enjoy reading my book “Where There’s a Hill,” available from Vertebrate Publishing, Waterstones, Audible, and Amazon.
I’d like to thank my husband for the support he provided at the race, Maggie of Play in the Wild for the strength and conditioning sessions (they definitely helped my uphills), La Sportiva, Berghaus, Leki, Mountain Fuel, and last but not least, all those who helped with the Tor and made it such a great race — I’ll be back!
Call for Comments
- Have you run with Sabrina Verjee or seen her in action?
- Have you completed the Tor? Or is it on your bucket list?!