Tuesday, 18 September 2012

In the Land of the Giants

As I was driving home from Italy I thought a bit about how I could record my experience in the Tor des Geants race last week. It took over five days to complete and there was a danger of both writer and reader losing the will to continue long before the end, so I decided to deal with different  aspects of the affair in separate posts; this one is all about the journey and its emotions; if you're interested in the technical stuff of how I think I made it work for me then you'll have to wait for part two!

It's an event that not many Brits have entered; maybe four or five over the first two runnings, and there were now seven of us in this, the third year of the race. George, Anthony and Julie were the class acts while Richard, Alison, Jacky (a French guy resident in Nant Peris) and I had maybe lesser ambitions (although the others all had plenty of UTMB's, PTL's, and GRP's between them, so I was in pretty competent company). We met up at the briefing on Saturday evening and then again all found each other at the start line in Courmayeur's church square at 10am on a beautiful sunny Sunday morning.

At the start
Alison, George, Anthony, Julie

The atmosphere felt very relaxed in comparison with the UTMB races, no stirring music or long speeches, just a short final briefing which I didn't hear, then as we chatted away to each other we heard the ten second count-down begin and the six hundred plus field was off.

It's quite difficult to understand just how long and steep the course is, but the statistics say 330km and 24,000m of positive height change. The bare numbers don't mean much of course, but think of say three consecutive Bob Graham rounds, or of travelling from Manchester to London taking in three Everests on the way. You have 150 hours to complete the course.  It starts and finishes in Courmayeur and is divided into seven sections, each one ending at a "life base" where you are re-united with your drop bag and can get some sleep if you wish, have a shower, get a meal and so on before tackling the next stage. They tend to be quite noisy places so unless you're pretty well out on your feet, sleeping is not easy. Alternative places to sleep are out on the trail (if it's warm enough!) or in the many mountain refuges you pass through, though sleep time in these is limited to two hours so you don't "block" a space required by a later runner.

Stage 1  Courmayeur to Valgrisenche  49km  3996m D+

I didn't see any real running at the start, just a bit of desultory jogging down the hill and over the river, but then I was by design right at the back of the field. We then settled straight away into the first climb from Courmayeur at 1244m to the Col d'Arp at 2571m. Speed was governed by crowding on the narrow track at first but it soon thinned out so that everyone could find his chosen pace after maybe half an hour. The narrowness of the track is another feature of the course, which follows the footpaths Alta Via ("high road") 2 from Courmayeur to Donnas, then Alta Via 1 back to Courmayeur, the whole thing describing a big circle around the Aosta valley. These are used but not well used tracks so unless you are on a rare bit of jeep track or road, the track is around two feet wide pretty well all the way. The first climb followed the track through the woods then up across the alp. It was a warm day and I took it very easily, reaching the top feeling comfortable then jogging most of the way down the other side over grassy hillside then jeep track and narrow road down to La Thuille at 1458m. The first hill done, I guess we all felt we were now starting to get into the event  -  we had just been up and down Ben Nevis.

The next climb went up a rocky track through the woods then over the mountainside to the Deffeyes hut. As we went up we were passed by scores of people coming down, up to the hut for a day's walk I guess, who were enthusiastically supporting all the runners with cries of "Bravo", "Bravissimo" and "Complimenti". Almost everyone we met around the course did the same. I was slightly embarassed by all the attention at this point less than half way through the first day, but I think by the time we had done a few days we felt we were starting to earn it. Leaving the hut I caught up with a girl who seemed to be going at just the right pace, so I followed her to the next col, the Passo Alto (2857m). When she reached the top she let out a yell that could only be North American, so we introduced ourselves, took photos, and chatted as we carried on down the other side. Claire was from Calgary in Canada and had been a top class swimmer until a bad horse riding accident and was now into all sorts of adventure racing. Her aim, like mine, was just to get round the course in reasonably good shape and enjoy it.

At the Passo Alto
It was only (!) about 800m down to the tiny Promoud Hut, before the final climb of the stage up to the Col Crosatie (2829m), which was up a steep hillside but on a very easy zig-zagging track and I found that on this sort of ground Claire was much quicker than me so she pulled away. It would be a feature of the early part of the race for me, I would often catch her on descents or more technical ground, only for her to pull away again on the straightforward climbs. By the time I got to the col it was pretty well dark and the temperature was dropping rapidly. Luckily there was a small bivouac box just over the other side providing a sheltered place to "suit up" for the night. I found that during the race it got dark between 8 and 8.30pm and was not light again until between 6.30 and 7am, so a lot of ground was covered in the dark. It was a long but fairly straightforward descent down to the valley at Planaval (1517m), but the sting in the tail was that this was not the end of the stage, there were still about 5km of tracks along the valley, gradually rising to the base at Valgrisenche (1662m) which I reached at 11.45pm, just about what I had hoped for the first day.

Stage 2  Valgrisenche to Cogne  56km  4141m  D+

I had decided not to sleep for the first 24hours - we're used to that in other races and I thought I would still be too caught up in the excitement of the start to sleep anyway  -  so I had a meal and set off again into the night.

Now enthusiasm gets you through day 1 no problem, but on day 2 the Tor des Geants starts to let you know what you're really in for; almost as if the course is saying to you "So you think you're a contender then? Well, let's see how you suck this up!" It starts with the Col Fenetre (2854m), a long climb in the dark via the Epee Hut and then rocky zig-zags to the top. As I looked over the top I saw the sight mentioned on every TDG blog I've found so far - the lights of runners ahead of you  appear to be going down almost vertically below you for miles. The first few hundred feet down are VERY steep, good zig-zags but still unnerving on the turns. I'm a mountaineer and I usually put my poles in the sack at the top of a col and jog down; not this time, I was very glad to have them for security until the angle eased. Once down this bit the track was easy enough down to the Notre Dame checkpoint at 1738m. Alison was in the hall there, I hadn't seen her since the start. She said she was struggling a bit but pushed on while I had something to eat; I was keen to maintain a state where I felt that I was out for a walk in the hills, not feeling stressed and I wanted to go slowly enough so that the food stops were a pleasure to be anticipated and enjoyed.

Checkpoint on the Col Entrelor; Col Loson in centre of far skyline
The next climb up to the Col Entrelor at 3002m was easy but very steep all the way; this was the first climb where I needed to stop a few times so that I didn't get too tired, perhaps I was subconsciously concerned about what was still to come. I was passed by Claire again here so she must have stopped longer in Valgrisenche. It was also the first big climb with no hut on the way up but we were promised a water supply at the top. When I got there, there was a checkpoint just over the  col, a small bivouac box that had been flown in for the event, but they had run out of water. It had been hot and sunny since daybreak on the descent to Notre Dame so this was a disappointment. Nothing for it, I carried on down without, the descent was quite easy and fast, with a lovely runnable track in the shade of the woods at the end where I passed Claire again, then down to Eaux Rousses at 1654m, where I also caught up with Alison again. I felt I needed a rest here, maybe the lack of sleep was starting to tell, so after eating and drinking I just lay down in the sunshine for half an hour to soak up some energy; during this time both Alison and Claire set out for the next col. I also took the opportunity to call Jan back at home to let her know I was going OK. She was following the race on the site's live tracker and had a much better idea of where I was in the field than I did. She said I had been in the five hundreds the first day but had now got up into the four hundreds.

The next col was a 1650m climb up to the Col Loson, at 3299m the highest point on the course. On the other hand the the path turned out to be very well engineered and at a very easy angle for nearly all the way up. There were no huts en route but a standpipe or two and some good streams so topping up water wasn't a problem. I just took it very steadily and made good progress until the last 300m or so. Here the path became rocky and steep and I started to slow down with overall tiredness and altitude; I struggled to the top counting steps for the last bit  -  100 steps, pause for rest, 100 steps, and so on.

After a day and a half of perfect weather, we were now going to get a change. Just as I reached to col it started to rain, which turned rapidly into hail. The first bit of descent was steep zig-zags which in the conditions had become very slippery so had to be taken very carefully but things improved after a while and I got down to the Sella hut for a breather and a cup of tea. As I left the hut, the light started to fade which was OK at first but then I came to what was probably the worst section of track on the whole trip. Think Scafell Pike, Broad Crag, Ill crag area and you get the idea. I couldn't see what was rock, holes, tree roots or whatever. It was a really frustrating couple of miles and I was feeling very tired, I just wanted to get down. The Col Loson had proved a really low point in my Tor. Eventually the track gave out onto the valley floor but there then was the almost inevitable few kilometers of tracks along the valley to finally get to Cogne (1531m).  I checked in to the base, found a bed and fell asleep instantly.

Stage 3  Cogne to Donnas  44km  3348m  D+

After two hours sleep I was woken by my alarm and felt a different person, refreshed and ready to go. I went through to the dining section of the base and collected some bread and a big plate of pasta. At that point I saw Alison again who had also just slept, so a little while later we set out together, somewhere around 4am (I didn't record the exact times when things happened and it will take a while for all the intermediate splits to be published, so for now I'll just have to go with my memory).  The section started with a long climb up through woods where the track wandered around up and down as well as contouring round bits of hillside, it was difficult to see just what was happening in the dark. After nearly three hours we came out onto the open alp and it got light though it was a very cold morning. We then soon reached the Sogno hut (2534m). The alp area was a bit disappointing in the cold light, with several industrial looking farm buildings and a line of huge electricity pylons, a contrast to the stunning views we had had for the previous two days. We found Jacky inside the hut.
Jacky and Alison at the Fenetre du Champorchet

I hadn't seen him since the start, but then the three of us carried on to the top of the Fenetre du Champorcher (2877m) together up a steep but straightforward path. Of the others, I just assumed that George, Anthony and Julie were well ahead of me by now; I hadn't seen Richard but Alison said she had seen him towards the end of day two suffering from a really heavy cold so he had probably dropped out (which was in fact the case) From the col it was a long descent to the next base at Donnas at 330m  (yes, that's over 8,300ft of continuous descent!). I stayed with Alison and we descended first across the hillsides then followed a path on the side of a long wooded valley with a beautiful river tumbling along the bottom through a series of waterfalls and rock pools. The track wound in and out of villages and eventually became flatter in a wide valley just before Donnas. Here we came across Jacky again; he had stopped to buy an ice cream in one of the villages, walked off eating it and twenty minutes later realised that he had left his poles in the ice cream shop and had to go back for them! The final mile or two were along a road; the three of us seemed to be in good condition with no aches or pains in spite of approaching the 150km mark; the same couldn't be said of a runner that we caught up approaching the base  -  he was leaning heavily to one side and staggering quite badly. Alison said she had seen this condition before, it was probably just extreme tiredness. We tried to get him to walk with us but it was too difficult so we covered the last few hundred yards to the Donnas base and let the marshals there know so they could send someone back for him.

It was only early afternoon and Alison and I had agreed not to try to sleep at Donnas but to push on through after an hour or so. I had a shower, changed my socks, ate a good meal and was ready to start going uphill once more. While we were here Claire showed up again, making the same overall progress as us along the course by slightly different tactics.

Stage 4 Donnas to Gressoney  53km  4107m  D+

We had been warned that this was the toughest stage. Not only did it have one of the biggest distances and height gains overall but the track was more consistently technical over this section that anywhere else. We also checked on the forecast at Donnas and although it was a hot, almost close, afternoon as we left we were told to expect some poorer weather over the next couple of days, rain, a drop in temperature and some wind. I made sure I had plenty of warm clothing in the bag and one of the things I left out to compensate was the camera - probably no great loss as I don't normally take many photos anyway.

Out of Donnas we climbed up through vineyards for a few hundred feet, then back down again to a little checkpoint at virtually the same height we started from. This could have been a bit frustrating but I had decided early on not to be worried by any seemingly pointless wandering, either vertical or horizontal, in an event this length. You can't do anything about it so why worry? "The route goes where the route goes" had become the mantra for this aspect of the race.

Then we started climbing more seriously, steeply up through woods. It started to rain but was still warm so you didn't know whether to put on a waterproof or not, We persisted without until our shirts were getting quite soaked, then gave in. The rain persisted until it got dark and we reached a checkpoint in a little village called Perloz. I really would have liked to see the next section in daylight because after a bit of descent we followed a track along gangways fixed to the rock wall of a gorge and over long bridges with the sound of rushing water far below, The track then led out of the trees and into alpine pasture country, passing through several villages and hamlets with very steep steps cut into the fields between them. After some time we reached a little auberge checkpoint at the Etoile du Berger where we were glad to take a bit of a break for some food and drink. From here it was about a last 700m of climb to the Coda hut (2224m) where we planned to sleep for a bit.

Alison had been climbing very strongly and led most of the way from Donnas to the Etoile du Berger, but as soon as we set out from there she seemed to slow down; she said she was struggling with tiredness but would be OK if we went slower. We now moved from rural to mountain landscape, the track becoming very tortuous weaving its way around and over boulders, climbing all the time, and we had no sense of where it or we were heading next. As we got higher a strong cold wind sprang up and we needed all our clothes on to keep warm because we were going slowly. The hut didn't seem to want to show up, then at last we saw its light still a way above us across the other side of what seemed like a blind valley and the path slowly wiggled its way round towards it. A few hundred yards from the hut we saw a stationary headlight by the side of the track. It turned out to be Jacky who said he was really tired and had needed to rest for a while. He joined us for the last pull up to the hut, it was good to get inside out of the wind. We had climbed fairly continuously upwards for around 6500ft since Donnas and it was now 2am. We immediately asked for somewhere to sleep and crashed out for two hours.

I felt great again after sleeping and we had a good breakfast and were on our way by 4.30am.  The track went down now, still twisty but less bouldery, though not good enough to establish any sort of rhythm. It was ground that Alison found hard, and it took us nearly three hours to descend to the checkpoint at the lake of Lago Vargno at around 1750m, barely 6km from the hut. By Donnas I had built up a nice cushion of 6 hours or so ahead of the cut-offs without ever trying to go quickly, but our pace now was eating into this. We would reach the next base at Gressoney but not have much time before we would be forced to go on. I discussed this with Alison who said I should go on, she would try to make the cut-offs at the pace she was going and hoped to improve later. I felt a bit bad about this as we had travelled together for over 24 hours but you have to pace your own race and there was now quite a lot of daylight left to get to the next base - if you stay with someone else you inevitably have your low points at different times which slows both of you down overall - so we said goodbye for now.

I pushed on at a better pace. I was enjoying the territory, it was rather like a path in the Lake District, up and down, round corners, quite bouldery underfoot, you never quite knew where it would lead you next. It went up over a number of small cols  - the Col Marmontana, the Crena du Ley and the Col della Vecchia - all at around 2300m with drops between them of around 300m, which  hardly showed as more than undulations on our roadbook topo. The day was overcast and we still had a chill wind so it was good to keep moving. Since my low point on day two over the Col Loson I seemed to be going consistently well. I jogged down a longer descent to Niel (1573m), then took on the final climb of the stage over the  Col Lasoney (2364m).  From here it was a lovely long run down on grass then on an easy track to Gressoney (1329m) which I reached just about 22 hours after setting out from Donnas. Never mind, the big stage was now done and I had moved up into the 300's, the top half of the field for the first time. I was comfortable to be here because on the previous two runnings of the race around 300 people had finished so I felt I was on the pace for completion again.

There were still a few hours of daylight so I had decided to carry on after a brief stop into the next stage. I now had evolved a system for transiting the life bases which I would stick with until the end  -  check in, quick cup of tea, clean and regrease feet, new socks, big meal and out. Was I was eating Jacky came up to me and we exchanged tales of what had happened since the hut last night, and decided to set out together as soon as I finished eating.

Stage 5  Gressoney to Valtournenche  39km  2602m  D+

This is the easiest stage on the Tor, just two big climbs on good tracks and nothing much else, but there was already a stiff wind blowing in the valley as Jacky and I left Gressoney.  We covered a few km along the flat valley floor before climbing to the Alpenzu hut at 1788m by which time it was dark. The path to the hut was straightforward but again very steep. As we stopped for a drink at the hut, a French lady runner, I guess in her 40's, was just putting on warm clothes before setting out, we wished her well. The hut guardian told us that it was 1000 metres up and 800 metres down to the next hut, but that the descent was long, an overall distance of just over 9km. We left the hut and the first few hundred feet were surprisingly easy, a good track on steepish grass. We gradually caught up the French lady, who then asked if she could tag along until we were over the col, which of course was no problem. The grass turned to rocky zig-zags, it became very cold and the wind was fierce. I had on a thermal vest, light fleece, mountain jacket, waterproof trousers over my running tights, a good woolly hat and light ski gloves, and I was glad of it all. The water in Jacky's external bottle froze. But if you turned your light off and looked up is was a clear wild night with stars everywhere, still a privilege to be there in spite of the less than perfect conditions. We eventually made it up to the top, the Col Pinter (2776m) and as we poked our heads over the top the wind grew to howling. The best thing we could do was to lose height as fast as possible so we descended as rapidly as our lights would allow, and a few hundred metres lower the wind died back to more manageable levels. We then covered a long gently descending section to the Crest hut, stopping for tea and biscuits at an unofficial pit stop in a small auberge just before the hut (there were a number of these along the course, seemingly provided by the enthusiasm of the owners, who refused to accept payment for anything). We arrived at the Crest at 2am and went straight to bed, asking to be woken in two hours.

I was conscious of drifting back into wakefulness and looked at my watch, which read 5.30am! I roused Jacky, come on we've cocked this up, then went up to the dining room. Relax said the guardienne, you're going nowhere for a while. Apparently the race had been stopped because of excessive wind, cold and snow a bit further down the course, and the organisation had decided to collect all the competitors in safe warm places until things improved. We went back to bed, a real bonus, and were allowed to set out again after breakfast when the race was restarted at 9am. The event had been "paused" for 5 hours, but all the subsequent cutoffs had been extended by 5 hours to compensate. We had rested for all of this pause period but some people had had to keep going until they reached a refuge and one effect of this was that Claire caught us up again. She had seen Alison back in Gressoney, and at that point Alison was still going just inside the cut-offs.

We set off down to the valley checkpoint at St Jacques (1700m) which looked like a war zone  - people slumped in corridors, rucksacks everywhere, you had to squeeze by everything to check in. The small place had obviously had to hold far more people during the pause than was comfortable. We were straight in and out, and off up the second hill of the stage to the Col di Nana (2770m).

I enjoyed the great majority of the whole event, but on this ascent I just hit one of those magical periods. It was a still chilly but stunningly clear and beautiful morning, I was moving and breathing easily, and it occurred to me that I was now really in tune with the environment. This was no longer a race, or endurance event, just a journey through a little known but wonderful area of the Alps which as far as I was concerned could now go on for as long as it liked, I couldn't think of anywhere I would rather be at that moment. When we reached the top of the pass we could see the "Geants" all around us  - Mont Blanc, the Matterhorn, Monte Rosa, the Grand Paradiso and all the others. A special moment.

The descent was easy and I outpaced Jacky to arrive at Valtournenche (1526m) for a sock change and a late lunch. I also checked the rankings to find that I was now in the low 300's, still moving gradually through the field.  Jacky soon arrived and as I always seemed to spend longer eating, we were ready together to set out on Stage 6.

Stage 6  Valtournenche to Ollomont  44km  2702m  D+

This was another stage where the statistics and the topo couldn't give a true impression of the work involved. Although on paper only marginally longer than the previous section, on the ground was an altogether different story and it took far longer. Jacky and I set out from Valtournenche at mid afternoon and for once the initial climb was "just a baby one" as Jacky put it, up to the Barmasse hut at 2175m. From here, the route wove in and out of a chain of peaks for the next few hours, sometimes finding its way over cols, sometimes on broad ridges, sometimes traversing steep hillsides, with the ascents and descents rarely more than 300m but with plenty of them. This section was also well supplied with a series of small refuges, all about 2 hours apart. From the Barmasse we went steeply down, then up and over the Fenetre d'Ersaz (2293m) to the Vareton refuge, where it was time for headlights to go back on again. It was turning out to be another cold and windy night. The next section took us over the Fenetre du Tsan (2738m) which took a while to turn up, then on to the Reboulaz hut at 2585m. This was a lovely welcoming little place and we spent 20 minutes or so by the stove with tea and noodle soup. We asked the guardienne about the next bit of the route, and she said it was not wise to carry on to the Cuney hut if we were tired because the path was very exposed and a fall would be serious. It was just coming up to midnight and I felt I had at least another two hours before I wanted to sleep so I said I would carry on. Jacky said he would probably do the same, but would set out a bit after me. I didn't see him again.

The trip to the Cuney hut went over the Col Terray (2775m) then seemed to cling to the side of a steep rocky hillside for many kilometres. It was impossible to see what the drop below the path was like but I was fairly sure I didn't want to go there. The concentration required made the time flash by though and I could soon see the lights of the Cuney hut in the distance. By now the field was really spread out and you were unlikely to see other runners unless you sought them out; it was a weird but somehow satisfying sensation, wandering along through the mountains in the pitch dark, completely alone. I would occasionally pause for a drink or a handful of sweets,  then turn my light off and just gaze at the stars for a few minutes. By the time the Cuney hut turned up I was ready for some sleep, so I asked to be woken in two hours. It was not a paticularly quiet place so I awoke in an hour and a half and decided to carry on. I got some food and drink and then checked out with the marshal. It was very reassuring how they managed your passage along the course, particularly at night. The whole network of huts and checkpoints was connected by radio, and as I was leaving somewhere I would often hear " Numero 496 parta da.........).

But just as I was leaving the Cuney at around 4am I got some more news. The race was not going on to the finish, the organisation had decided that deep snow and ice over the final col made it too potentially dangerous, so the race would finish at St Rhemy at 303km instead doing the full 330km to Courmayeur. I was initially really disappointed to hear this. I was going well, I had plenty of time, I was on schedule to finish in Courmayeur with 10-15 hours to spare, but if there's only one game in town that's the one you have to play, so I pushed on to the last of the series of small huts, the Clairmont at 2705m. The Guardian at the Clairmont said that the track went up a short way to the Col Vessona at 2788m, then descended to the valley at Close, but beware, it was a long way, more than 9km.

Up to the col was easy, then the first part of the descent was down slippery sandy zig-zags on a steep hillside so I took it carefully. Then the ground got easier and the dawn slowly started to appear, by the time I got down to the alpine meadows it was a grey half light, but easily enough to see and feel the crunchy frost underfoot. At this point I had my only navigational concern in the whole race. Most of the way had been on fairly easy to follow paths, augmented by little "TDG" flags with a reflective strip on at every key turn and every hundred yards or so otherwise. Here there were two or three possible ways and no flags. I suspect that as we were now getting into Friday a combination of wandering cows (of which there were many herds along the course) and the persistent wind had gradually done the damage. Still, all the tracks led more or less down the same valley so I picked the most obvious one and was relieved when I came across an "Alta Via 1" marker a few hundred yards further on. In another quarter of a mile or so the flags re-established themselves and I was happy that I was securely on track. After the alp the path went down for miles through the trees but I was able to jog most of it down to the valley low point.. As so often in this race though, from the low point it was necessary to climb back up a couple of hundred metres to the next checkpoint at Close (1463m).

I was ready for breakfast but the Close checkpoint was the only one that was disappointing along the whole course. The marshals were a bit offhand and there was hardly any food. I made do with a cappucino, a couple of mugs of Coke and a few TUC crackers and set off again. The only good point here was that I noticed as I checked in that I was now in 290th place. The final obstacle on the stage was the climb over the Col Brison (2508m) but it was pleasant up through the woods and over the alp, then steep down for a bit followed by the long descent over hillside and through woods to the base at Ollomont (1396m), arriving again at around lunchtime. What made this bit nice was that it looked like we were getting into a bit of fine weather again, it was warm and sunny and the wind had almost completely died away.

Stage 7  Ollomont to St Rhemy   21km  1400m  D+

After my normal hour for sock change and food, I set off up what was to be this year the final major climb. It was hot but not unpleasant as I wound my way gently up to the Letey hut at 2433m then the summit of the Col Champillon at 2707m.  What was pleasing was that the very first 1300m climb out of Courmayeur on Sunday had taken me 2hrs 45min, and here I was on the last 1300m climb, over 5 days later  - and it took just 2hrs 45min.  The descent was easy zig-zags then a good path down the meadows, followed by a wonderful path that traversed the hillside for miles, gently descending all the way, easy jogging, followed by a last little descent to the final checkpoint before the end at Ponteille. I wasn't going to stop but was persuaded by the runners already there, now in party mood just before the finish, and of course the ham and salami did look good. The track on the the topo appeared to go gently down all the way to the finish at St Rhemy from here and I asked the marshal if there were any uphills in it. No, downhill all the way, it's like a road, he assured me, just 10km to go. On that basis I had a glass (or rather a paper cup) full of red wine to celebrate the end of the hills. It probably wasn't a good move because the track actually turned out to be quite undulating with many uphill sections. I guess in the Val d'Aosta unless it's at least 1000m and in your face, it isn't considered an uphill! Still I managed to run the downs and power walk the ups all the way to the finish.

The finishing arch, commentary and general celebratory scene had been fairly well moved from Courmayeur to St Rhemy, and I heard my name as I checked my wrist chip for the last time and learned that I had crossed the line in 270th place. I would have bitten your hand off for that before the start, I had not only completed the biggest event of my ultra career so far, but in good shape and reasonable style. It was somehow hard to believe that it was all over, but within twenty minutes I was back on a bus to Courmayeur, a proper long shower, and sleep.


The following morning I gradually found out what had happened to the others. George and Anthony were as good as expected, coming in 64th equal, though what gave me some encouragement is that they were still beaten by the first Vet 60  - maybe there's hope for we more elderly pedestrians yet! Julie was inside the first 100, which won her the Lady's Vet 50 prize.  Although I was not aware of it, Jacky had stalked me a few hours behind until the end, finishing in 309th place, and Claire had continued her steady way round to finish 328th. There were 392 finishers in total. Alison had unfortunately had to pull out at St Jaques after completing 222km of the course. The winner was the young Spaniard Oscar Perez, who got back to Courmayeur (before the final pass was closed) in 75 hours - just half the total time allowance.

I was still a little disappointed that the conditions prevented us from completing the whole course. But we had missed only 27km and 1400m of climb. My official finishing time was 125hrs 13 minutes 32 seconds.  As the time allowance for the whole course is 150 hours and I was still in really good shape when I finished, I somehow think I would have made it OK if it had been available. The whole thing was still a wonderful experience.

I really couldn't get my head around the enormity of it before the start, I just knew that if other ordinary people had got round then I probably could. In the end I was not only surprised by how doable it was, but how much I enjoyed the whole thing. I had 13 hours sleep in five and a half days and it was enough. I kept going steadily, looked after my feet, ate lots and never got distressed , although I got pretty tired on the Col Loson early on. I never set myself intermediate targets, I knew that just keeping comfortably ahead of the cut-offs would be OK.

Would I go again? Probably not in the near future. I had such a good trip that any comparison would probably be unfavourable. Maybe in a few years, if I'm still going well enough.

This is a brilliant, well-organised, demanding challenge in a stunning area that is not overrun with people. What makes it is the scenery of the Aosta Valley and the hospitality of its inhabitants. How such a big, serious event can at the same time be so relaxed and so much fun can only be in the end because it truly is "driven by Italians".

Postscript 2017:  Like the determined lady she is, Alison went back the following year and managed a successful completion. I recommended the Tor to John V, a friend of a similar vintage to me, a steady completer of big events. He took his time, completed the trip and found it as good as I did. And as for me? Well, the following year saw the start of a series of injuries which, perhaps combined with the passing years, make it unlikely that I will go back for another Tor. But it still remains one of the highlights of my ultra career and the memories will take a long time to fade.


Tim said...

An amazing story Andy and a result to be hugely proud of. Well done!

Richard said...

Well done Andy,

I made it to the end (within the alloted time limit!)

The point where you nailed the description of the course is when you describe your ascent of the Col Terray. This moment, the oneness with the course, is what most of us seek.


Silke said...

Loved reading your report. What an adventure. What a challenge. Huge congratulations for completing it! Can't wait for part 2!

graeme reid said...

Andy- you are a legend and, as always, an inspiration. Well done.

Anonymous said...

Andy ~ you rock!