Monday, 24 September 2012

Tor de Geants Practicalities

I said I would follow up my Tor des Geants tale with some of the practical stuff that went into it, and I'd better do that now before the whole thing starts fading from my now rather questionable memory, so here goes. Now just to be clear, these are not recommendations on how to approach an event like this. We're all different, I'm just recording what I did, what I think worked and what didn't.

Overall Approach

When I entered the event back in February I knew it was likely to be popular because Mark Barnes told me it filled up in 4 days last year, but I was still pretty staggered when I found out that this year entries closed 27 minutes after the site opened. This confirmed what I had already half decided, that this was likely to be my one and only attempt at the race; they probably have to resort to some sort of ballot in future years, I want to do the UTMB next year, so it would be several years before I could guarantee another chance. Consequently, I decided that my goals would be (a) to finish, and (b) to have an enjoyable time  - it's hard to contemplate carrying on for 5 or 6 days with something that is just hurting. I decided that I could make the times OK if I walked everything that was uphill, and ran the downs only if it was easier than walking (on some gradients it definitely is).


I stopped nearly all running after the West Highland Way race at the end of June. From then until the week before the race I went out only three times a week, comprising the following sessions:
1. A long day in the Lake District, covering around 25 miles and with between 7000 and 10000 ft of ascent depending on the route. I was also collecting Wainwrights so I rarely covered the same ground twice. To replicate the race plan, I walked the ups and jogged the downs.
2. A morning doing "laps" on my local hill in the Clwyds which is a 900ft rise from car park to summit. The number of laps varied from 2 to 6 depending on how much ascent was in the Lakes trip in that week.
3. A 5-10 mile run in my local forest at around 8 min mile pace, just to keep a little bit of sharpness.

I averaged around 45 miles and 11,000 ft of ascent a week.  It seemed to be enough, I was climbing as strongly after 5 days in the TdG as I was in the beginning (but that depended on other factors too of course).

Race Strategies.

The two things that I thought about beforehand were (a) how fast to go, and (b) when to sleep.

Looking at the figures before the start, I felt that with 150 hours to cover 200 miles, I ought to be able to average 2 miles an hour, including food/drink stops, leaving 40 hours for major rest stops and 10 hours safety margin. To do this I decided to go at all times at a pace that I felt I could keep up all day; if I felt I was tiring, I would slow down until I felt strong again. The pacing worked well, there was only one point on day two, when I had been awake for 36 hours and was tackling the highest climb on the course, that I felt I was struggling; the rest of the way, the pace felt really comfortable. My speed estimation however was wildly optimistic; I managed to achieve a 2 mph average only when I was moving  - all stops had to come on top of this.

I had never done a race remotely like this before so I was unsure how to approach sleeping. My only experience was going through two nights on the Lakeland 100 and UTMB, when I was definitely in a significantly worse state on night two than night one, and I knew this wouldn't work in a five/six day event. I had read on blogs of people getting through the whole event on 8-10 hours, but that seemed very little to me. In the end, with the race starting at 10.00am, I decided to go straight through the first night then sleep every night or evening after that. A big learning for me was that when I was tired and ready to fall asleep, then two hours was enough to refresh me completely and I was ready to go again. This meant I was able to take most of my sleep in mountain refuges, which were much quieter and more comfortable places than the valley bases.


I wore Hoka Stinson Evos for the majority of the race. The only exception was for Stage 4, on which I was warned that the track was much more technical, so used an old pair of Asics Trabuccos which were fine (actually, the track wasn't at all technical by say Lake District standards so the Hokas would have been fine). At each valley base I recoated my feet in a good layer of Sudocrem then put on new socks - I always wore a thin "thermal" pair underneath a cushioned cotton pair - all socks from M&S at about £12 for five pairs. I never got a blister or any other foot problem. I think going slowly had some effect on this too, lowering the footfall impact. Of all the people that were in some kind of trouble, the great majority were suffering foot problems  -  in a race this long you really have to look after your feet from the word go.

We didn't have any blazing hot weather so I wore a long-sleeved thermal top and a teeshirt most of the time, and knee-length running tights. I carried a lightweight fleece for the nights, which were cold. I started off changing clothes at the valley bases but got tired of that eventually and wore the same set of clothes for about the last three days. I have some respect for how cold it can get in the mountains this late in the year, so I forsook the lightweight waterproofs and took a full weight goretex mountain jacket and overtrousers. I was glad of both at night and the former many times during the days when higher up. I was also glad I took a baseball cap for the days and a good woolly hat for the nights. I get cold extremities so I also took a pair of lightweight ski gloves which worked fine. Down in the bottom of the sack I also had a lightweight puffy smock (mine is a Rab Neutrino) - a space blanket might just about save your life if things go wrong but it won't be pleasant, better have something warmer is what I say.

On stage 1 I tried getting all this lot into my Raidlight running sack, but it was so tightly packed it was almost impossible to manage, so on Stage 2 I changed to using a lightweight TNF climbing daysack which I had brought along "just in case" and which proved excellent for the rest of the trip. If you're only going to run downhills, a pound or two extra doesn't make a great deal of difference and you may as well have the comfort/convenience/added safety of a few extra things.

On the hardware side, I used poles for all the ascents and almost none of the descents. I have the "tent-pole" type which you can collapse very quickly and put in your sack for the descents. Wouldn't go without them on this type of course. My headlamps are pretty indifferent, I saw many brighter beams, but again at my speed they were fine. An altimeter is on the required kit list, most people use a watch type; I found it really useful for judging where you were on a long ascent. That was the only watch I took, Garmins and suchlike are not really relevant for this type of event.

Food and Drink

I got lucky here because I'm a real fan of Italian food and there was lots of it. You seemed to get to a "ristoro" (refreshment point) every 3 or 4 hours, and they all had dried ham, salami, bread or crackers, local Aosta cheese (brilliant), dried and fresh fruit, chocolate, water, Coke, tea, coffee, etc. At night the huts normally had noodle soup as well. I made sure that I ate and drank well at every ristoro, and that I was going slowly enough on approaching them to be really looking forward to the stop and the food. In between I drank only water (about a litre every 4 hours on average) and ate chewy sweets - Haribos, wine gums, fruit pastilles, that sort of stuff, which you have to provide yourself.

At each valley base, I made sure I had a good meal before setting out again. This was normally a plate of charcuterie and bread, pasta with tomato sauce and a salad, yoghourt and some fresh fruit, and a beer. You don't move so fast after that, but if it's uphill anyway who cares?

In general, I felt that I got into "balance" where I was putting back nearly as many calories as I was using, in contrast to the progressive deficiency you usually get in an ultra race. The big learning for me is that it's all about speed. Go slow enough and you can eat what you like, go that slight bit too fast and eating becomes a problem to deal with rather than a pleasure to enjoy.

That's about it. I think I learned a lot. If I can adapt just a bit of it, I might even get around the UTMB next year...........


Anonymous said...

That's it really, isn't it? The welfare (food, feet, feelings)is what makes and breaks an event sort of thing.

Well done Andy

Anonymous said...

Very insightful (Is that a word?), and helpful, Andy.

The lack of sleep for several days must make it a very different proposition to e.g. WHW, UTMB, and other c 100 mile races.

It makes me wonder how folk like Ellen Macarthur and other long distance yachtsmen / women manage. I think they can exist on short catnaps for weeks on end. I'm not sure how you would train for that other than gradually through experience. Or through multiple childbirths and parenting??? Maybe ;-)


pat said...

Hi Andy

Just been catching up on your "outings" and very much enjoyed your account of Tor des Geants and note how at home you are in Italy, well done mate, missed you somewhere after glencoe on the WHW, was with Jon Steele on that last leg, hope to be back next year as i have sorted my injury out? ......Pat