f you have been lucky and managed to secure a place in the Tor Des Geants then congratulations. If like me, you are trawling the internet and reading blogs then I hope you find my experience of the 2016 race helpful. If you are unaware of what this race is all about then let me explain. The Tor Des Geants is a 330km single stage race with an ascent (and descent) profile of 24000 metres. The organisers impose no compulsory stops on competitors so consequently the winner will the person who completes the race in the shortest time. It is up to each runner when and how long they rest. Approximately ever 50km there is a Life Base where a bag will be transported for you, allowing you to change clothes etc. Additionally there are another 43 refreshment stops. You have a maximum time of 150 hours to finish the race and the completion rate is about 60%. The trail is a tour of the Aosta Valley following the two “high routes” of the region. The No. 2 for the first half of the race and the No. 1 for the second half. You will cross 34 municipalities, 25 mountain passes over 2000 metres, 30 alpine lakes and 2 natural parks. Quite simply, it is epic.
Western States Endurance Run, UTMB (Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc) and the Tor Des Geants sit, in no particular order, right at the top of my bucket list. After completing the Lakeland 100 in 2015 it seemed a natural progression to run one of my big three. The Western States was out of the question. I had not ran a qualifying race (The Lakeland 100 now is a qualifier). I did not have enough points for the UTMB so that left the Tor Des Geants as this had no qualifying requisite. Just apply and you go into a ballot and if you are one of the lucky seven hundred then you will get a place.
Unfortunately for me, when the draw was held, I was 1999th out of the hat. No entry for me then. What I did not realise was that they have rules regarding representation from different countries and each country has guaranteed slots. So if someone drops out then the organisers will call the next person on the list from the same country. It was a huge surprise when in August I received an email from the organisers. I had been offered a place. Just five weeks to race day, I had three days to decide. It took me three seconds. I was in!
With such a short time until Race Day there was not much opportunity to do anything from a training point of view. I did schedule in two big mountains days up in the Highlands though and ran my local Lomond Hills route half a dozen times. Obviously, if I had gained an entry back in March then I could have trained specifically for this race. It was not as though I was untrained though. I had completed two big races this year (The Sandstone Way Ultra and Ultimate Trails 110K) and I was currently ramping up for the Cotswold Century so I should be ok from in that aspect.
I booked a flight to Geneva, accommodation for the day before the race and decided on a private taxi from the airport to Courmayeur. A bit pricey (actually a fortune) but it saved messing about with a coach to Chamonix then a bus to Courmayeur. On arrival at Courmayeur you could feel the buzz all around town. Registration was a long winded affair but once complete I met up with Leanne and Simon from Jersey (I had met Leanne though the Tor des Geants Facebook page when trying to sort out my transfer from airport to venue). We had a wander around town then spent a couple of hours in a lovely restaurant. I hardly slept a wink at night and as soon as daylight broke I was up out of bed. After breakfast, I wandered to the event centre and handed in my bag that would be transported to each Life Base for me. I then made my way over to the start. It was show time!
I made my way into the starting pen. It was rammed full and the atmosphere was electric. People were jostling for position. Pushing and shoving, shouting and cheering. I decided to stay near the back and avoid the commotion. Time dragged as we all waited. There was no big prelude to the start, just a ten second countdown and then we were off. The locals were out in force and as we headed through the town centre I deliberately kept my pace slow. As we converged at the start of the trail I was probably in the last fifty competitors. This did not concern me. This was going to be a long race and there would be plenty of time to make up places. My one and only goal at this stage was to get to the next checkpoint with time to spare before the cut-off.
I waited as we funnelled onto a single track that would head up towards Col Arp (2571m). Just the small matter of a 1347 metre climb or put simply, Ben Nevis plus three metres from sea level. No gentle introduction then? It was not very steep though. The path zig-zagged up so the climb never felt too intense. However I was struggling to keep my heart rate under control. I did not feel I was working that hard but I was twenty beats above what I expected. Maybe it was the altitude but I made a decision to ditch the heart rate strap and not bother trying to run in any zone. Just keep it nice and easy and do not push too hard. I followed the line of people slowly up. There was no opportunities to overtake anyone and no real need but some people were flying up past me and cutting the corners just to make up a place or two.
It was 10km to the Col and it took me about two and a half hours. By the time I reached the top it was baking hot. Even at this height there was plenty of spectators and the views were amazing. I started the long descent to the first checkpoint at La Thuile to cheers of “Bravo!” My one and only Italian word, “Grazie”, which would serve me well over the next week. The descent was great and it was good to stretch my legs. The heat was unrelenting though and I was glad of the water troughs at periodic intervals where I could fill my cap with water and pour it over my head. At every corner there was someone cheering or clapping. One guy had loaded up a cement mixer with a couple of cow bells. Industrious indeed!
I arrived into the checkpoint at 13:57 and was glad to get out of the sun. I filled my cup up with Coke and surveyed the food on offer. Lots of meats and cheese. Hmmm not ideal when you follow a vegan diet. I skipped the offerings and had an energy bar from my pack instead. Another cup of Coke and then back out into the sun. At UK races you normally get the cheap and nasty ‘Saver’ brand of Coke served at checkpoints. This is actually ideal because it usually flat by the time you have opened the bottle and is easy to digest. The Tor Des Geants had ‘proper’ Coca-Cola and it was gassy as hell! I felt really uncomfortable as I started to run. My stomach felt twice the usual size. Better take it easy with the fizzy pop at the checkpoints!
I headed out of the town and followed the path upwards. Navigation was not an issue. Every twenty metres or so there was a yellow Tor Des Geants flag indicating the way. As I climbed higher I really got a feeling of what this race was going to be about. Big climbs followed by big descents, minimal flats then repeat. The views were something different though. I had never experienced anything like it in my life. Everywhere you looked, huge mountains dominated the view. It truly was amazing.
Unfortunately, my enthusiasm for the views was not matched with how I felt though. I was a little out of sorts, kind of sluggish. Whether it was the heat or the Coke or combination I am not sure but it was a slow tough slog up towards Rifugo Deffeyes (2500m). It was at this point that I met Jenn, a fellow UK competitor. Jenn is sponsored by Montane and was also having a bad time of things. She had been vomiting in the heat but did not seem overly concerned. She explained that when she ran the race a couple of years back, she had felt bad on the first day then as well but went on to finish fifth overall, an impressive feat!
We chatted away and discussed the route and other races we had ran and made steady progress. At Rifugo Deffeyes I avoided the Coke, grabbed some fruit and pushed on. Time was ticking by and it was already 16:51. I still had two more climbs to tackle and I wanted to get as much completed before it went dark. Jenn soon caught me up and we met Rich, another UK runner. We all made steady progress on the climb to Passo Alto (2857m) where Jenn informed us that she does not “hang about” on the descents and promptly set off in a flash. There was absolutely no way I could keep up at that kind of pace. I guess that is the reason she is sponsored by Montane and I have to buy all my own gear! The descent was steep and technical but the sun had disappeared and for a moment it even tried snow. There was a checkpoint at the bottom and finally my stomach had settled and I managed to eat some soup. From here it was just 800 metres of ascent to Col Crosatie (2829m) then a long slow descent to Planaval.
By the time I reached Col Crosatie it was pitch black dark. It was a little technical near the top but there was ropes to hold onto if necessary. I guess you were probably exposed but I could not tell in the darkness and I did not spend any time thinking about it. Just off the Col there is a memorial erected for Yang Yuan, a runner who fell and died on the course in 2013. I paused for a moment to reflect before heading down the mountain. The path was great and I made good progress. For the first time since the start I actually felt good.
In an ideal world the Life Base would be located conveniently at the bottom of the mountain but this first evening was an introduction for what would be in store at the end of every stage. A long steep descent followed by another 5km or so of running through endless back streets of some kind for what seemed an eternity to eventually get to the Life Base. In this case it was a 7.0km trundle through fields then a climb up a road to Valgrisenche where the Life Base was located. I arrived at 23:51 in 527th position. It was chaos!
I did not know what to expect at the first Life Base but one thing that was for sure, I would not be resting! Scantily clad runners roamed through the halls, race volunteers were yelling out numbers in Italian. People were sorting through bags everywhere. It was total bedlam! Sleep was out of the question so I decided to queue for a shower and sort my feet. I already had a blister (not a good sign) and I felt hot and sweaty. When I eventually got in the shower it was ice cold so it was just a quick “in and out”. I did feel better however and with my feet strapped up, I made my way to the food hall. There was some roast potatoes and salad. Perfect! I was in and out of the Life base in less than an hour and on my way to tackle stage two – notoriously known as the most difficult in the entire race.
It was good to be back outside. For the first time in the race, I was on my own and the crazy scenes at the Life Base soon became a distant memory. In the distance you could see a train of head torches making their way up towards Rifugo Chalet de l’Epee (2366m). It looked amazing. It was probably about 3:30 when I arrived at the Rifugo and I was beginning to feel really tired. I grabbed a cup of coffee and sat down. I felt my eyes close and I must have dropped off asleep. I woke up with a “start”. How long had I been dosing? My coffee was still warm (and miraculously in my hand) so it must have only been a few minutes but I needed to get my backside in gear otherwise I would be sparked out for the entire night. I nailed the remainder of the coffee and set out back into the darkness.
I could not see anyone in front and nobody came out of the Rifugo behind me. I was on my own again. The path steepened and zig-zagged up to Col Fenetre (2854m). The descent from Col Fenetre is one of the steepest on the Tor and I had read blog posts where people had struggled to see where they were going in thick fog but it was a clear sky with nearly a full moon so there was no issues for me. It was steep however and the image of Yang Yuan’s memorial was still fresh in my mind so I took extra care on the descent.
By the time I arrived in the checkpoint at Rhemes dawn had broken and the daylight brought me out of my sleepy slumber. At the checkpoint there was a room with about half a dozen beds. One of them was empty. It look inviting and for a second I was tempted to grab it but I had the two biggest climbs of the entire course next and I wanted to get them out of the way. Instead I decided to just have a cup of tea which was delicious, a kind of fruity tea and some biscuits. I left the checkpoint and picked up the path that would take me up to Col Entrelor (3002m). There was a sign that notified me that it was a three and a half hour climb to the Col. I had learned the previous day that if you keep at a steady pace then the timings on these signs were pretty accurate but daylight had brought me new vigour and I settled myself into a decent pace and was hopeful of getting there ahead of the estimated time.
I got my headphones out, cranked up some music and headed upwards. The path was excellent and as is steepened higher up, it zig-zagged back and forth rather than going straight up which made things easier. This was my forth big climb now and I noticed that at about 2500 metres I could feel the air thinning with extra effort required. It was not anything significant though and certainly nothing compared to when I climbed Kilimanjaro. The higher I got, the better views became and looking back I could the steep descent down from Col Fenetre which looked near impossible from this distance.
I arrived at the Col and took some time to take in the views. Out in front of me was an amazing looking trail path. It was smooth and gradually dropped down. Just perfect to run on. It was about 10km to Eaux Rousses from her so time for some fun. I picked up the pace and started the descent. I probably ran a little bit quickly but the trail was amazing and I was enjoying myself. Past one person, past another and another. By the time I arrived in Eaux Rousses I had picked up about thirty places.
I grabbed some pasta, bread and a cup of tea and sat down for a rest. The thought of an 1800 metre climb to the course high-point, Col Loson (3299m) was not exactly enticing. The heat had cranked up another notch and I was feeling really sleepy. The checkpoint was really busy. There must have been about forty people there but since I had arrived only a couple of people had checked out. It is so easy to lose track of track of time at checkpoints and my memory drifted back to my first Ultra, The Lakeland 50, where towards the end of the race, Scott and I were spending at least an hour in each checkpoint. I hauled myself up, checked out and set off. I had just made up over thirty spaces by moving through the checkpoint quickly.
It would be unfair to say it was a slog up to Col Loson. Although there was a lot of elevation, the path snaked back and forth so the climb was gradual. I climbed for about an hour but I was so tired I could feel my eyes shutting as I walked. I put some thumping dance music on but it made little difference. Try some AC/DC? Nope. Maybe a power nap may do the trick? I am sure I had read somewhere that you were not allowed to sleep at the trail side but if I got myself out of sight then it was hardly going to do any harm. I walked off the path and scrambled up a mound and got myself behind a bush. With a vision of me sleeping all afternoon, I decided to set my alarm for thirty minutes, configured it to vibrate in case I did not hear the alarm go off and shoved the phone down my shorts. Yes I know, not a pleasant thought but I was taking no chances with oversleeping. Fortunately, I woke before the alarm went off. Probably about twenty minutes after I had lay down. Great stuff!
I nailed an energy gel and set off. It is amazing what a power nap can do. I felt tons better and settled into the climb. In total it took me just over four hours from the checkpoint (including the snooze) to get to the Col. It was windy at the top and a little chilly but the views were to die for. Just off from the Col there was a checkpoint. The path was narrow though, only a foot or so wide in places with a big drop. There was a fixed rope and I was thankful that I did not have to tackle this in icy conditions and that I did not suffer from vertigo. From the checkpoint it was a straightforward descent to Rifugo Sella and then to the Life Base at Cogne. It had been a tough leg but I had had made good progress, moving up 166 places to 363rd position.
Fortunately the chaotic scenes at Valgrisenche were not replicated at the Life Base at Cogne and I was able to book a bed. I had to wait a while and was tempted not to bother but there was no way I was going to get away with running through two consecutive nights without some sleep. When my bed became available I was told two hours maximum. I sat down on the bed and all I wanted to do was lie down and close my eyes. But I was crusty and I needed some food. Also, my feet needed attention. I had some hot spots and at least one blister. Best to get them sorted first. I grabbed a quick shower and got a bowl of salad and some pasta. I had brought some homemade flatbreads with me and I made a huge salad and pasta Hogi. Yummy! As suspected I did have blisters. My left foot had taken the brunt. One on my big toe and a huge one on the inside of my foot. I was undecided whether to burst them or not. I decided against bursting them at this point in case they got infected, instead dressing them with a Compeed Plaster and then strapping them up with Rock Tape. With my chores taken care of and now donning fresh clothes I settled down to sleep. In hindsight I should have sorted everything before booking my bed as I had already eaten thirty minutes into my two hour allocation. I decided to set my alarm for three hours. Just in case the attendant forgot about me!
Unfortunately bang on two hours I felt my shoulder being shaken. I had to relinquish the bed for another runner. I felt pretty good though and was looking forward to the next section. Just one big climb then a long 30km descent to the next life base at Donnas. I headed back into the main area and grabbed an energy drink and asked one of the volunteers to knock me up an Espresso (double shot). Whilst loading myself full of caffeine I noticed Leanne and Simon. They were also ready to head out and invited me to tag along.
We set off out into the darkness. First objective was the climb up to Fenetre di Champorcher (2827m). It was a strange kind of evening. It felt really cold when we set off but once I got moving, I soon warmed up and it was not long before I was stripped off to a t-shirt. We made steady progress and chatted about the first two days racing. The high and low points. The crazy first checkpoint and the huge climb up to Col Loson. I had not had a meaningful conversation with anyone since I chatted to Jenn on the first afternoon so it was good to have Leanne and Simon for company. As we climbed higher we settled to our own pace and gradually pulled apart. I waited for Simon to catch up and he told me he was going to wait for Leanne and I should push on.
I left Simon and headed up on my own. It was good to have run some part of the race with Leanne and Simon but they were on a journey together and I was on my own. I was really enjoying the climb and was looking forward to pushing on especially as I had been looking forward to the descent into Donnas. I had read that you should not underestimate this as it is 30km long dropping from 2827 metres all the way to 300 metres. It had taken me four hours in total to get to Fenetre di Champorcher. Now the descent would start. It was as I headed down to Rifugo Dondena (2151m) that the hallucinations started. It started with frogs jumping across the trail. Then it was rabbits. As my head torch shone into the night I noticed a Polar Bear in the distance. As I got closer it morphed into a boulder. It was a bizarre experience, not disturbing at all. I felt like I was part of a cartoon. As I rounded a corner there was a huge Michelin Man levitating just off the ground. When I got up close I realised it was actually some kind of disused outbuilding. Next there was a rocking chair and just as I thought things could not get any weirder my head torch picked out a Ford Capri parked up in the middle of the trail. Yes a Ford Capri! You could not make this up. Whilst all this was going on I was making good progress and just over an hour after starting the descent I reached Rifugo Dondena.
There was about twenty or so people at the checkpoint. Some people were lay on benches fast asleep, some were curled up on the floor. Anyone who was not sleeping looked shattered. I had my checkpoint routine ‘down to a T’ now. Pasta or soup, bread if available, cup of tea, chill out for five minutes maximum then out. I then headed back out onto the trail. There was no more hallucinations, just darkness. I was on my own again. Every now and then I would pick up a runner in the distance. I was running well and reached the checkpoint at Chardonney whilst it was still dark. It had been a good night and it was only 18km to the Life Base at Donnas which I assumed would be a straight-forward downhill run. There is nothing straight-forward on the Tor however. Around Pontboset there was some steep, short climbs and descents that seemed to go on forever and of course when I finally did hit the tarmac there was the obligatory 5km run around the town centre. By the time I arrived at the Life Base at Donnas it was early morning and the sun was already beating down from a cloudless sky. It was going to be a scorcher. I checked in at 9:21. I had moved up 111 places to 252nd position.
There was only a limited number of beds at the Donnas Life Base and they were all taken. I was keen to get out before the midday sun anyway so decided to get in and out as quickly as possible. I had brought a couple of Pot Noodles with me and packed them in my big bag that was transported between the Life Bases. Full of all sorts of nasty ingredients but a whopping 500 calories none the less. I had hoped not to use them but I just could not stomach anymore pasta. After eating I took a quick shower and addressed my feet. I now had three big blisters but more worryingly the skin on my right heal was cracking. This had caused me no end of issues on last year’s Lakeland 100. I strapped the heal up and hoped for the best. With my feet sorted I checked back out. I had been in the checkpoint for an hour exactly.
I had read that the next section was tough. Donnas was only 300 metres above sea level so there going to be a lot of climbing to get back up above 2000 metres. Additionally this was one of the longest legs in the race with the trail considerably more technical than anywhere else. Out of Donnas I climbed up a hundred metres or so then dropped through a vineyard all the way back down to a small checkpoint then back up through the vineyard to pretty much the same place I had descended initially. What the hell was that all about? It was a little frustrating and seemed a waste of effort. I guess the checkpoint at the bottom was to stop people avoiding the descent and re-ascent.
Once the vineyard was out of the way, the serious climbing started. First through a wooded area and then through several small villages as it gained height. It was relentless. Steep steps had been cut into the ground and it took all my will to just keep moving. I resorted to mind games. Walk up ten steps, rest for ten seconds then repeat. It just went on and on. Eventually I arrived at the checkpoint at Sassa (1305m). It had taken me over four and a half hours to cover about 15km. But there was not less than a thousand metres of ascent to Rifugo Coda (2224m) where hopefully I could get some sleep. It was so tempting to have an extended stay at the Sassa and I could feel my eyes closing. Six hours earlier, running into Donnas, I felt as strong as an Ox. Fast forward to now and I felt totally spent. It is strange how things can flip during an ultra-race. I knew that if I did not get moving soon then I would be sparked out all afternoon so I picked myself up and set off.
One positive thing was that the higher I climbed the cooler it became. Down at the vineyards, my watch had clocked thirty degrees centigrade. At this height it was down to the early twenties. The cooler temperature enabled me to up the pace a little. The sooner I got to Rifugio Coda the sooner I could sleep. It is took me two and a half hours to make up to the Rifugo and by now the race had really spread out and whilst I passed the odd runner the majority of the time I was on my own. By the time I arrived at the Rifugo I had perked up a little and even contemplated pushing on until Rifugo Balma (2040m) which was 6.4km away and have a sleep there instead. There was a room available at Rifugo Coda though and it was empty so I asked to be woken in two hours and settled down to sleep. Ninety minutes later I awoke and decided to get up a little early and make use of the remaining daylight and head off.
The sun was beginning to slow drop down behind the mountains as I left and it looking stunning. Feeling invigorated from the sleep I set off and I initially made good progress, catching up a number of runners and overtaking them. I say initially because as the sun disappeared and darkness set in, the wheels began to come off. The trail undulated up and down over boulders. It was quite rocky underfoot and reminded me of the Lake District. Unfortunately, my Hoka’s were just not suitable for this kind of terrain and progress was slow. I stumbled and slipped my way over the rocks then dropped down to a dam expecting a checkpoint. According to my map I should be at the Lago Vargno checkpoint. I had not come off the route because I could see the yellow route flags. I continued along the trail and arrived at Rifugo Balma (2040m). I grabbed some biscuits and a cup of coffee. I was a little stressed about the missing checkpoint. Had I come off the route somehow? Would I have to go back? Would I be disqualified? When I eventually found someone who spoke enough English to understand my predicament I was reassured that I had not missed the checkpoint. It had been removed for this year’s race.
With my panic over I set off back into the night. The path did not relent and once again I was struggling with tiredness. All I could do was put one foot in front of another and continue. Every now and then when I would lean over my poles and close my eyes. I would count to ten then stand up and continue. Up, down, up, down. For what seemed hours I shuffled forwards until I eventually stumbled upon a checkpoint. There was a huge camp fire burning away and I grabbed a chair and drew up close. Temperatures had dropped throughout the night and there was quite a chill. I must have dropped off because when I came round one of the volunteers had put a blanket around my shoulders. It was a small gesture but typified everything about the amazing people who support you as you run.
I cannot remember how long I stayed by the campfire but I knew that it was not that far to the next Life Base at Gressoney and I would be able to freshen up, change my clothes and grab a decent meal. Unfortunately my battery had died on my watch so I could not track my mileage but it was just one big climb to Col Lasoney (2364m) and then a long descent and all being well, I would be there at daybreak. I soon realised that something was not right when started descending rather ascending. The ‘camp fire checkpoint’ was Niel right? I checked the map again. If I had just left Niel checkpoint why was I going down? The map was quite clear. A checkpoint at Niel, up to Col Lasoney then down to Gressoney. Was the ‘camp fire checkpoint’ actually at Col Lasoney and I was descending to Gressoney? Was I actually further on that what I thought? As I plodded on, the truth began to dawn on me. I was not even at Niel yet. In my zombie like state I had misread the map and somehow fast-forwarded 10km.
It was like a hammer-blow and I felt as low as I have ever felt in an ultra. This was not fun anymore. I reminded myself why I was doing this and that I would come through as long as I continued to put one foot in front of another. That was all I could do. Just keep moving forward. At 5:51 I arrived at Niel Checkpoint. I asked to a volunteer to point to where I was on the map. Maybe I had made a mistake and this was just a bad dream? Maybe I was at Gressoney after all?
“You are here” he informed me, pointing at the checkpoint marked Niel.
I remember actually feeling relieved. For the past couple of hours, there was a sliver of hope that I when I arrived at the checkpoint it would be Gressoney. It was a ridiculous notion but sleep deprivation had warped my mind and I was not thinking straight. Now I could let it go. I was not at Gressoney, I was at Niel. I had to get up and over Col Lasoney. That was all. I set from the checkpoint and started the long, slow ascent up. On the plus side, day was beginning to break and I could just about manage to see without my head torch. I was hoping the dawn of a new day would perk me up a little. It was not the case. I felt myself weaving back and forth across the trail and the next thing I was flat on my face in a ditch. Had I just fallen asleep whilst walking or had I just tripped up? I needed to get a grip of myself. Have a sleep and recharge. I pulled my jacket from my pack, placed it at the side of the trail, set my alarm for fifteen minutes, lay down and closed my eyes.
I felt my phone vibrate. Fifteen minutes had gone by in the blink of an eye and it was time to get going again. I shoved my coat back into pack and set off. Similar to the previous nap I had taken on the ascent up Col Loson, fifteen minutes’ sleep had done the trick and I felt significantly better. I wondered how long I could continue to function with just grabbing a bit of sleep here and there. Could I really maintain this all race? Incidentally, I had no more sleep deprivation issues for the remainder of the race. It was as though eventually my body accepted the lack of sleep and just ‘acclimatised’ to the situation.
Once I got over the top of Col Lasoney it was a long grassy descent down into Gressoney. It felt like an age since I had actually done any running and it was good to break into a gentle trot into the town. I finally arrived at the Life Base at 10:30. It had taken me a whopping twenty-four hours and nine minutes to cover the 59km from Donnas. I was not the only person to have struggled on this leg as somehow I had managed to gain 38 places. I was now in 213th place.
The Life Base at Gressoney was situated in a huge sports hall. There was a separate sleeping area and only a third of the beds were taken. It had a relaxed atmosphere. Perfect! No rushing or stressing. I plonked my bag on a bed in the corner and headed into the hall to get some food. Soup, salad and another Pot Noodle from my bag. The lack of food choice was getting a little tiresome but I had little option in this aspect so would have to just make do. I looked around and noticed Jenn sat at a table so I went over for a quick chat before I headed off for a shower, feet maintenance and a couple of hours sleep. The soles of my feet were really sore. The constant pounding was taking its toll. On leaving a Life Base they were fine but as the day went on, the discomfort would gradually get worse. Once I had rested them they would be OK for a while and then the process would repeat. I also had six blisters and the skin on back of my right heal which had cracked was a real mess. Judging by how some people were walking I had got off lightly so I cleaned and dressed them as best as I could and settled down for a snooze. I think I got about two hours’ sleep but made no rush once I woke up and spent a little time relaxing and catching up on social media.
It was now early afternoon and decided it was time to get back onto the trail and cover as much as ground as possible before night-time. The good news was that the next leg was only 34km and not technical. Just two big climbs and upon arrival at the next Life Base in Valtournenche I would have less than 100km to the finish. Should be pretty straightforward? Unfortunately, as I was soon to find out, this leg was going to be anything but straightforward. When I headed back into the hall I was informed that the weather was turning and snow was forecast. Every person leaving was having their kit checked to ensure they were carrying crampons (or microspikes). I later found out that a competitor was disqualified for not having this mandatory item of kit.
I had my kit checked, handed my bag in and stepped outside. It was gloomy and drizzly but still really warm. I followed the road out of Gressoney and then started the climb up towards the first of the two Cols. It was a steady 1400 metre climb to Col Pinter (2776m) but the trail was easy going and I made good progress. I passed Rifugio Alpenzu (1788m) only stopping briefly and continued up. As I climbed higher, the rain stopped and breaks appeared in the cloud. I arrived at Col Pinter (2776m) three and half hours after setting off. I probably spent a good fifteen minutes at the Col just taking in the views and reflecting on the journey. There was still a couple of hours of daylight left and I reckoned that if the path was runnable all the way then I would be able to make it to the next checkpoint at Champoluc before darkness set. Although the path initially dropped steeply it was easy to run on and I trotted steadily to a ski centre then a steep descent followed by a short run through the town centre to the checkpoint which was located in a park.
I had a cup of coffee, some biscuits then headed out (now in darkness) across the park towards the final climb of the leg to Col di Nana (2770m). I got to the far end of the park and realised I had left my poles at the checkpoint. Total nightmare! I sprinted back across the park at full pelt. If someone had snaffled them then I was in deep mire. Whilst I have never used walking poles on an ultra before, they had been invaluable on the steep ascents and descents in this race. Fortunately, they were under the table where I had left them. Phew! I stepped back outside and set off back across the park.
Although there had been people at the checkpoints and I had passed the odd person on the trail, the majority of this leg I had been on my own. Pretty much just the way I like it so I put some music on and followed the path up. It was about 10km to the Col, passing through a checkpoint at Rifugio Grand Tourmalin (2535m) on the way. I stopped for a cup of tea, headed up and over the Col then started the descent down towards Valtournenche. I estimated that I would arrive at the Life Base around 3am which would give me the opportunity to have a sleep during the night for a change and be out for the next leg at daybreak giving me the opportunity so spend a big chunk of the next leg in daylight.
I descended into the treeline (this normally started at about 2000 metres and was a useful indicator of your height) and then the path dropped steeply. I slowed to a walk and at about 1600 metres I emerged onto the streets. I followed the yellow flags through the town centre passing a church amongst other buildings. I then rounded a corner and up in front of me was a huge white tent. It certainly looked like it could be the Life Base. Just as I was ready to walk towards the entrance, my eye was drawn to the left of the tent. There was a yellow flag. Well if there is a yellow flag then this cannot be the Life Base, so I better just follow the flags?
Unfortunately, the white tent was the life base and the yellow flag was the first flag marking the route from Valtournenche to the next Life Base located at Ollomont. It was a schoolboy error. I was now following the flags to the next Ollomont having skipped the Life Base at Valtournenche entirely. I set off following the flags I initially did not have any doubts whatsoever that I had made a mistake. I carried on for a couple of kilometres, totally oblivious and started climbing up. It was only as the path steepened that I realised something was not right. I consulted my profile map. According to the map the Life Base was immediately at the lowest point in the valley. So why was I ascending? I continued for another couple of hundred metres but then I noticed the treeline. Something had gone wrong.
I stopped and thought. Slowly the truth dawned on me. The white tent was the Life Base! I had gone straight passed it. I was furious with myself. The race is long enough without adding extra distance. What a total muppet! I felt totally deflated and miserable. I had only probably gone an extra two kilometres and all I had to do was retrace my steps, follow the flags backwards and I would be back at the Life Base in twenty minutes maximum. Nothing too major but I had lost all reason and rather than take my time and ensure I followed the flags correctly I just pelted back down the track and promptly took a wrong turn. I was now wandering around a strange town in the early hours of the morning, with not a soul in sight. To make matters worse, there was no street signs anywhere. I was lost!
To say I panicked was an understatement. I just did not know what to do. I paused and thought. Right, I will phone Emma. I grabbed my phone but then stopped. What in hells name is Emma going to be able to do? Absolutely nothing apart from probably getting stressed herself! OK, I have no choice. I will have to phone the organisers. I played the conversation through in my head.
“Hello, My Organiser. I am total idiot and somehow I have ran past the Life Base. Yes that big white tent! Not only that but for good measure I have taken a wrong turn and do not have a clue where I am. There are no street signs anywhere but can you come out and find me anyway?”
Well obviously that was not going to work either. I sat down on a wall. Calm down and think. I cannot be too far off route. I just need to find a yellow flag and follow it back into town. I looked at my watch and then it clicked. My watch stores the GPS coordinates and you can select a screen that shows a really simple map of where you have been. Basically it is just a simple line showing direction and distance but all I have to do is follow the line back the way I come and I will pick up a yellow flag. I switched through modes and found the map screen. Presto! I turned around and started walking, following the line on my watch. Up a hill, right turn, another small hill and there was a yellow flag. Not only that but I recognised where I was. It was like finding a £50 note in the gutter, I was so relieved. I dropped into a jog and headed along the road, following the yellow flags. Fifteen minutes later I was at the white tent. I checked in at 3:39 in the morning. My escapade had cost me an additional forty-five minutes. A poor performance on this leg had seen me loose fourteen places. I was now in 227th position.
I faffed around for a good hour. Tried to eat but was not hungry, went for a shower but no towel (I had left it at the previous Life Base), attended to manky feet, tried to eat again, tidied my life base bag then finally settled down on my bed for a sleep. Of course I was absolutely shattered but could not drop off. The sleeping hall was huge but of course, I had chosen the only bed next to a guy who was snoring as loud as a steam engine.
I reflected on the journey so far. The last two legs had been tough and had made me dig deep but I was still here and in all honesty, in pretty good nick. Yes, my feet were blistered and skin was flaking off but once cleaned and strapped up they held up pretty well until later on in the day when the soles of my feet would start aching. Surprisingly, I had no issues with my legs. No aches, chaffing or anything. I had got word that people were dropping like flies. People were wandering around like zombies. Some people could not take any more and had given up. What must it be like to get this far into a race and then have to quit?
Arriving into Valtournrnchie had meant passing a significant milestone. Only two stages remaining and less than 100km to go! The next stage was a little different as well. A climb up to 2500 metres then a series of undulations before a big drop to Oyace then one big last climb before the final descent to the final Life Base at Ollomont. The views on this leg were supposed to amazing as well!
I am not sure how long I stayed awake for but when I finally did fall asleep I must have slept for close to three hours. I was glad that I had got into the routine of performing the following stage’s preparation before I slept. On waking up, all I had to was get out of bed hand my bag in, eat (if I could manage it) and check out. None the less, I spent a whopping six hours at this Life Base but felt refreshed when I left. Unfortunately it was grey and drizzly outside. The tops of the mountains were covered in snow. Looks like I was going to miss out on the views although I had experienced four amazing days of weather so I could hardly complain.
I headed back out of town (again) and followed the track up towards Rifugio Barmasse (2175m). It was raining pretty hard now and I had to wear full waterproofs. The path was muddy and slippy. It reminded me of an autumn day in the Peak District. From Rifugio Barmasse the path descended and then for the next 10km climbed gradually up to Fenetre du Tsan (2738m) before a steep drop to Rifugio Magia (2007m) and then back up to Rifugio Cuney (2656m). The rain eventually stopped and although it was cloudy, you could see a reasonable distance in front.
Throughout the day I had overtaken a few people but there was long periods of time when you would not see anyone. By the time I arrived at Rifugio Cuney I had a companion. Xavier was from Spain (each runner had their name and nationality on their race number) and since Rifugio Magia we had been passing each other regularly. Xavier would fly past on the ascents then I would overtake him on the descents. Eventually, we just started running together. There was no agreement, no conversation, I did not speak Spanish and Xavier did not speak English. Communication was limited to a groan on a tough climb or a thumbs up on a fast descent. But it just worked and it was great to be running with someone else. There was no need to speak, we just ran and took in the experience.
The trail continued to head up and down and eventually reached the highpoint at Col Vessonaz (2788m). From here it was a long slow descent into Oyace. The weather was breaking now. The rain had stopped and the views were beginning to open up. It was probably about 10km to the checkpoint and the descent down was to die for. The path weaved back and forth, gradually descending into the valley below. Never too steep or technical. The kind of path you could drop the hammer and have fun. Xavier and I belted it pretty hard and made great progress running pretty much none stop until we reached the treeline and the path steepened.
By the time we arrived into the checkpoint at Oyace it was dark and I had been on the go for over twelve hours. My feet were on fire and I was feeling really weary. The thought of heading back out for a thousand metre ascent up to Col Brison (2492m) was about as appealing as scooping my eyeball out with a rusty spoon. There was a free bed in the corner of the checkpoint and I was tempted. A rest and a snooze was really appealing. Charge the batteries then head out but this was not a Life Base and I did not have access to my bag. So I would not be able to change my clothes or clean my feet and redress them. Another option would be to rest here then fly through the final Life Base straight to the end. That would extend the final leg to over 60km though. The Clash song came to mind. “Should I stay or should I go?” I knew that I should stick to my plan at the beginning of the day and head to the Life Base but I was struggling to motivate myself to leave. I rang Emma for a chat and asked her what she thought I should do. She told me to dig in and get over the Col to the Life Base. Of course she would. It was the right thing to do.
Whilst I was trying to make my mind up, Xavier wandered over and pointed outside. He had his pack on and he was ready to go and it was pretty clear he was expecting me to leave with him. With the language barrier it was not as though I could explain to him that I was knackered, my feet were killing me and I was staying where I was. So I stood up, put my jacket back on, picked up my pack and headed out. I guess if it had not been for Xavier I would not have left the checkpoint. If we could have communicated then I would have told him that I was staying and resting for a few hours. But the truth was it just felt like a load of effort to try and explain that I wanted to stay so I just got up and followed him. Ironically once I got outside and the cold air hit me, I no longer felt weary, my feet no longer ached. Only in an ultra-race can you switch from one extreme to another so quickly. I dropped in behind Xavier and we set off into the darkness. Time to nail this climb!
Looking back now, I cannot remember much of the climb to Col Brison. We just climbed steadily but non-stop all the way to the top. At the Col I gave Xavier a big thumbs up and we just dropped down the other side. The climb was a significant point for me in the race. I had been so tired at Oyace and was so tempted to rest. It would have been a deviation from the plan as the intention was rest at Ollomont. But Xavier had got me moving. I had resisted the demons. I had not succumbed to the bed, I had got moving. The brutal leg where I had struggled from Donnas to Gressoney was now a distant memory. The navigation cock-up the previous evening did not matter anymore. None of this was any significance now. The jigsaw puzzle was nearly complete and I had just worked out where the final pieces went. As we ran through the streets towards the Life Base at Ollomont I knew I was going to finish the Tor Des Geants. I just had to knock off 50km. I was now on a mission! Xavier and I arrived at the Life Base bang on 3:00 Friday morning. I was now in 209th place.
I skipped food and just asked to be shown a bed. I went through the usual routine of cleaning my feet, attending to blisters, re-strapping them up and changing into clean clothes. With no towel, there would no shower again but wet-wipes did a reasonable job, saved a load of time and it was not as though I was going out for a night on the town. I decided that there was no way I was going to spend another six hours in this Life Base. It was now a race. I wanted to gain as many places as possible and move up the leader board. I knew that if I could get out early then I would advance some places without even moving. Just a short sleep then. I set my alarm for ninety minutes and drifted off asleep.
When I awoke it was as though I had only just closed my eyes but I knew that the nest time I slept it would be in a hotel room in fresh, clean bedding rather than a camp bed in sheets that dozens of people had shared before you. I packed my bag and headed back out into the dark and handed my bag in. Into the eating area, I scanned the food and decided on a can of Red Bull, an espresso and a cereal bar. It was 6:30 when I checked out. I had been at the Life Base for three hours and thirty minutes. I logged onto the tracking page and checked my position. I was now in 198th position. Eleven places gained by just transitioning through the Life Base efficiently.
I knew as soon as I started the ascent up to Col Champillon (2709m) that I was going to have a good day. The climb felt easy and I was moving fast. Mentally I was totally in the zone. I pushed hard up the mountain blitzing through Rifugio Champillon (2433m) as dawn broke. Behind me I was treated to an amazing cloud inversion – it was stunning. It took me just two hours to reach the Col. I paused and looked down. There was a runner about four hundred metres down the trail. I locked onto to him and stepped up the pace. I was running fast and I flew on by. Further down there was two more runners. I went past them as well. I was really motoring now and was probably running as well as I had on any of the previous five days.
I pushed on and maintained a steady pace. The path levelled out and for the first time in the entire race there was sustained period of time where I could just run. No steep ascents, no rocky descents, just a wide forest path that was runnable. It was 11:12 when I arrived at the checkpoint at Bosses. I had gained sixteen places on that leg and with my race time of 121 hours and only one big climb remaining, I calculated that if I kept the momentum going there was a good chance I could finish under 130 hours.
It was just a mere 30km to the end. A thousand metre climb to Rifugo Frassati (2537m), another four hundred metres to Col Malatra (2936m) then just a short climb immediately after the checkpoint at Malatra (2325m). From here it was pretty much plain sailing all the way to Courmayeur. For the first time in the entire race I allowed myself to think about crossing the finish line. It was a bitter sweet feeling. I wanted to finish more than anything but it would also be sad that the race would be over. Everything I had done for the last six days was for one reason only. To get me to the finish line. Now that I was on the cusp of achieving that, I realised that I did not want it to end.
As I reflected on the finish, the rain began to fall and as I ascended higher it turned to sleet and then snow. The higher I got the heavier the snow fell and by the time I arrived at Rifugo Frassati it was hammering it down pretty hard. The snow laden, jagged ridge line of Col Malatra looked pretty imposing and it looked like it probably warranted full mountain winter gear; ice axe and crampons. Last year the race had been cut short because of bad weather and I had read that in previous years the organisers had suspended the race in poor conditions, holding competitors at checkpoints until the conditions improved. Could my moment of glory be taken away just before the last hurdle? But if there was concern for the conditions then the organisers did not seem to be showing it. Inside the Rifugo there was the usual cheerful banter amongst the organisers, volunteers and competitors. I realised that the last time I had eaten anything of substance was the previous evening at Oyace so I took five minutes to grab a cup of soup and then set off back out. One more big climb, that was all I had to do. The end was so close, I felt I could reach out and grab it.
My Hoka shoes had served me well throughout the race but they are awful on wet and muddy ground so they would be next to useless in the snow. I decided to attach my Micro spikes. It was a good decision because the snow was compacted and icy in places and it would have been a challenge staying on my feet. In the distance I could see two other competitors making their up to the Col. I followed their tracks and slowly but surely I gained height. Near the top there was fixed ropes and I was glad of the extra security. An hour after leaving Rifugo Frassati I made it to the Col. I cautiously made my way down the other side and after dropping a couple of hundred metres the snow had all but disappeared so I took my Micro spikes off and packed them away. Not the best of decisions. Within ten metres I was on my backside. Great!
I decided to persevere without the Micro spikes even though I was doing a great impression of Bambi. Another couple of metres and the muddy path finally gave way to something with a little more traction. I passed through a checkpoint and then after a short, sharp climb it was just the small matter of ten kilometres to the final checkpoint located at Rifugo Bertone (1940m). It may have been only ten but it felt more like fifty! The path just went on and on and on. Every corner I hoped to see the Rifugo, but nothing. If it was not for the fact that I could see the yellow route markers at regular intervals I would have said I had taken a wrong turn.
After what seemed an eternity I finally arrived at Rifugo Bertone. I checked in, grabbed a cup of Coke and quickly set back off. Down below I could see Courmayeur. It was just four kilometres and a thousand metres of descent to the finish. As I passed group of people, they shouted out my name and cheered me on. I waved my poles in air and upped the pace and basically got a little cocky then promptly stubbed my toe and went flying. How I did not ‘’face plant” was a miracle. I somehow just about managed to stay on my feet. The group were laughing now. With my face beaming I reduced my speed to something a little more sensible and headed down.
If there was ever a race that deserves a grandstand finish then it is the Tor Des Geants. A race of this size warrants something special. I was not to be disappointed. By the time I arrived into Courmayeur town centre it was closing in on 19:00. The streets were busy and the atmosphere was amazing. The path wound through a park and then onto narrow cobbled streets. At every turn people were clapping and shouting. It is hard to put into words how I felt as I ran down the final stretch. It was really emotional. I have suffered more in other races. I have had to work harder in other races. But nothing came close to the feeling as I walked up onto the elevated platform and lofted the Union Jack high above my head. Truly memorable. I crossed the finish line in a time of 128 hours 48 minutes and 2 seconds. 765 people had started the race, 317 had withdrawn and 2 were disqualified. Of the 446 people who completed the race, I finished in 160th position. Job done!
I have been fortunate to run some amazing races in the UK but nothing I have ever done comes close to being part of the Tor des Geants. It is so hard to put into words how I feel about it. I am just so privileged to have had the opportunity to line up with the other competitors and experience the race first hand. Everything about the race is epic. It felt more like an adventure rather than a race. There was high points and low points. There was times when I struggled, there was times when I felt invincible. It was all part of the journey.
I had no preconceptions before the race. I knew this was going to be hard so I adjusted expectations accordingly. My one and only goal was to finish under the 150 hour cut-off. That was it. My plan was to run steady and keep well ahead of the cut-offs. Whilst this did not seem that difficult and I comfortably achieved this, what I did not realise was how slow progress would be over the terrain. I like to start slow in races and ease my way in then finish strong. This is reflected in my leg times. From the start in Courmayeur to La Thuile then La Thuile to Rifugo Deffeyes my leg positions were 557th and 520th respectively. On the last day the legs from Ollomont to Bosses and Bosses to Frassati my leg postion was 15th for both. A considerable difference and on reflection I probably was a little ‘over-cautious’ on the first day and over achieved on the last day with my leg times more consistent in the middle part of the race.
I probably spent too much time in the Life Bases. I certainly was not efficient. For instance I spent six hours at the Life Base at Valtournenche but only slept for two hours and fifty minutes. In total I spent nineteen hours and thirty-seven minutes stationary in Life Bases. The winner spent one hour forty eight. Of the 424 people who are logged as visiting every Life Base I was ranked 307th from a time point of view. Subtracting Life Base time from overall race time to give a “time on the trail” time then my race position would have been 132nd rather than 160th. Now it may be that some of the people were transitioning through the Life Bases quickly may have been sleeping at the Rifugo’s instead so these statistics are probably warped. I only slept at one Rifugo, opting to sleep at the Life Bases instead which were often noisy and busy. If I was to run the race again then I would sleep at none of the Life Bases.
Food was difficult for me. It was not that the options were poor but the majority of it was cold meats and cheese. I follow a vegan diet so I had to manage on soup and pasta supplemented with my own supplies. This did seem to work however and whilst never felt out of energy it did reduce my calorie intake substantially I. Consequently, over the six days, I lost 4Kg in weight.
I had no issues with my legs at all. No aches or pains. Nothing. My feet suffered pretty badly though. Blisters and cracked skin affecting both of them although when I strapped them up it did not cause me any problems on the trails until towards the end of a leg when the constant pounding made the soles of my feet to burn.
So what next? Well I never do big races twice so 2016 will be my one and only appearance at the Tor des Geants. My main race next year is the Dragons Back which I am under no illusions about how hard that is going to be. The UTMB is also on my radar and I will be throwing my name in the hat this coming December. Next year I will also ensure that I also run a qualifying race for the Western States ballot (hopefully the UTMB). Time will tell but whatever happens in the future, I will never forget this race. Thank you Tor!