Sunday, November 20, 2011

Tor des Geants race report - October 7, 2011

It's three weeks since I crossed the finish line in Courmayeur and I'm still all excited about it. That's my longest runner's high ... ever. And by the way there are many photo albums about the race in my photos.


It all started two years ago when Bogie asked me when I would run my first 100. At the time I was totally content running shorter trail races, road marathons, and one 50 miler per year. And here is that confusing question. So I ran a 100, and then a mountain one, and loved it. Then another big question pops up: should i go faster or harder? Being crazy like the majority of ultra runners I decided to go harder. There was a thread on the mailing list about a year ago about a 200 mile Italian race with 80,000 ft of elevation. That gave me an idea.

Besides, I love Italy and Italians. I lived near Rome for 2 months in '89 and used to work for an Italian company for a few years. It's going to be Italian Alps - sounds perfect.

I love to run, I love to hike, I love mountains, I love seeing new places and new people. I run this stuff because I can and that's the beginning and the end of it. Oh yeah ... and working on running road marathons faster just too hard and painful.


Oh my, how does one train for that beast. Not to bore you with details: my training wasn't sufficient by the long shot, but it carried me through. My strategy was to double hard races. There were three steps all together:

fast Boston Marathon + rocky CAT-100,

fast Pineland 50 miler + high elevation Peak 50 miler,

pacer speed Vermont 100 + racing speed Escarpment 30K.

Training 100 mile runs? It's bizarre and funny to think of 100s as training runs. I really wanted to pile up a 48 hour run through White Mountain rocks or in Colorado, but it wasn't to be ...

The moment of truth

The last steps of getting ready for the trip. I'm freaking out. Ethan (my 14 yo) looked at me, measured me up and asked: "So one day 6 months ago you felt courageous and registered for that race, right?" I was scared. Did I bit more than I can chew?

The start

We are on the central square of Courmayeur. It's a quaint and very nice town on the edge of Italian Alps on Italian side of Monte Bianco. There is a church here and a Mountain Guide Club just across from it. Everybody's fit, everybody's excited and at exactly 10 am the crowd starts counting: dieci nove otto sette sei cinque quattro tre due uno ... go.

We started right on time. So much for cultural stereotypes. The first mile is through the town and then the conga line to the the first pass. I'm happy to be right in the middle and prevented from pushing harder. There is no rush. There will be enough opportunities to lose my breath.

Game changing moment

It's 7 pm of the first day and it rains a bit. I'm running down in a group of 4 or 5 other runners. I'm too close to the leader. It's a BIG mistake, huge. Here I'm humpty-dumptying off the wet rocky trail. My legs go to the left, while the rest of my body goes to the right. Oops! that's my head hits the rock. Oh! I'm 15 feet lower than where I started. Can I get up? I think I can. Other runners stopped not sure what to do. They tell me to sit back down and I do. Is the race over? Permanent injuries? Will they carry me out on an ambulance or something? Michael, an American runner who lives in Lyon, waves everybody away and is going to help me to deal with it. He forces me to sit and to catch my breath. Bruises are all over, blood too, my face is smashed. At that point I told myself that the race is no longer a race. It's a journey. There is no time expectation any longer, no competitive spirit: Just me, the mountains and the trail ahead. Little did I know that I'll keep moving up in my standing for the next 48 hours. I slacked the last two days.

It's an hour later and it's dark. Michael and I are back to the original jogging speed. The rain got harder and I have to get to the next aid station to get patched up by a doctor.

The beauty of it all

I can't put in words or describe the wonders of the Alps. There is one horizon behind another, clouds come and go. I see glaciers and mountain goats, an occasional brook or a waterfall carries crystal clear water. Turquoise lakes reflect mountain peaks. Cow bells ring in the middle of the night from across the valley. Mountain huts and farms are here and there glued to the slopes. Some of them are inhabited, while others are abandoned. Slate roofs. Little villages and houses surrounded by flower beds. Mountain passes with two worlds like on the palm of my hand on both sides. The night sky full of stars. Mountain rifugio's (huts), big and small, but always very friendly. Would you like some soup, beer? What's with your face? Do you need medical help?

The best advice I ever ignored

Paolo and Marco are from Padova. Paolo is light and speaks some English. Marco is taller, muscular, and younger. Paolo hiked the whole route in July with his girlfriend and knows all the uphills and turns. I ran with that dynamic duo on and off from the first night to the second. Paolo warned that the fourth stage (out of 7) is the toughest. They plan to have a longer sleep before it. I should too. Instead I breezed right through. Later I found out that at Donnas life station my standing improved from 100 to 60 only to go back to 100 over the course of the fourth stage.

I slept about 9 hours over those 5+ days, maybe up to 10. About half of it was at the aid stations, the rest was by the side of the trail. I loved sleeping outside, nobody would disturb me there. The only downside was shivering for 30 min after waking up. Of course cots and blankets under the roof were better. But people there were coming and going, other people's alarms were disturbing the sleep. Grrhh ... I should have slept a bit more and earlier in the game. It was my first multi-day race and it's my only excuse.

A lot of people were running in pairs like Paolo and Marco. It was much more common than in States. The most interesting pair I've encountered was Janne from Finland and Laurent from France. They spoke English to each other. Janne had 6 training visits to Alps over the summer. Darn! It beats my training plan hands down.

Night adventure

It's the forth night. I'm up in the mountains. A pass is just behind me. I tried to follow a few runners, but it just didn't work. I follow the markers instead. Markers are great, but I'm hopeless. I keep veering off the trail into the rocks. Darn! I'm not in a rush. I turn off my light and enjoy the night sky for a few minutes. It's a journey! Mountains around are scary and formidable in their awesomeness. I turn my light back on. No use. I'm in the rocks again. It's time for a nap. I opened my eyes 30 minutes later and saw the path as clear as at daylight. It's a miracle. Two friendly French runners Ludo and Virgile are passing by and I catch their tail. I think I can run faster now, but it's more fun in the group.

Mont Blanc = Monte Bianco

I arrived to Rifugio Bonatti, ~10 miles to go all downhill. There was a huge mountain just across the valley. The rifugio is at 7,000 ft but that one was going up to the sky and is bigger than life: vertical walls, glaciers here and there, dark. Oh my. This rifugio is large and with a nice wooden patio. A young British couple is snacking at one of the tables. They are doing Tour du Mont Blanc. It's a ten day 110 mile loop around the monster with stops at villages and mountain huts. Those huts have white linen, beer, red wine, and other niceties. I guess one of those days I should do the tour. There are UTMB markers all over. That piece of the trail is shared by both races and no wonder. the trail here is smooth and runnable. Oh well ... Let's fast hike it. Here is Karen walking towards me. Nice! We'll share the last few hours. It's all downhill from here.

The scariest moment

It's 5 am of the last day. It's the coldest night and the wind freezes me to the bone. I just woke up from a short sleep on the slope. The earth was wet and that wind was so cold. Brrrrrr ... There was a rifugio nearby where I had my morning coffee and food. I'm hiking up the pass. I lose my breath with every gust of the wind. That's way too often and the pass is not particularly high either (Col Champillon - 9,000 ft). It's strange and unfamiliar. I wonder if locals have a special name for that wind. I crest the pass and start going down. I still lose my breath on every gust and my heart is racing. Is it altitude sickness? We, sea level people, have it once in a while or so I heard. People do stupid things and die when they get it. I'm scared cause I never felt like that. I repeat to myself as a broken record "just don't do anything stupid, don't do anything unusual". It seems to be working as I walk down lower and lower. My breathing gets back to normal. Energy? Where does one get energy around here? I miss a turn and walk a quarter mile by that winding road down. Shucks! I'm walking back up and a volunteer in his tiny car gestures to me to get in to drive me to the missed turn. He saw my mistake from the far. No freaking way I'm getting in that car. I'd better walk. I have energy for that. Here is the turn. Was I blind? Whatever ....

The happiest moment

It's the last day about noon. I'm walking up that beautiful green mountain. The weather is perfect. It's sunny, probably mid 70s, a light breeze makes it even more pleasant. A few local hikers greet me with their customary: Bravo! Bravi! Complimenti! Forza! It's nice and surprising to get support in this remote area. Earlier in the morning I was hiking with Virgile, Laurent, and Ludo. They are French software dudes so we discussed business and technologies a bit. But then a French femme seduced them into running faster and I couldn't keep up. Plus I just discovered that a lil' rock in my shoe was actually a big blister. I'm not in rush, I'm traversing the slope and enjoy the scenery. A runner is changing his shoes in the shadow of a tree. I stop too and grease my blisters. I'm not in a rush. I have less than 20 miles to go and only two passes left (actually there was only Col Malatra left, but who reads those maps and charts anyway). I really don't care if I finish at 8 pm or at midnight. I find a shady patch of grass and go for a midday nap. Sweet. I wake up 40 min later. The energy is back, the views are as beautiful as ever. It's time to go and to kill the beast.

The lowest point

Karen and I are walking to Cogne. She met me at Rifugio Vitoria Sella up in the mountains. Cogne is a beautiful town in the valley and the second life base. It's 2 pm and the day is hot. I'm overheated, I have a headache, and my stomach wants no more of my bars and gels. Every step is hurting - a huge blister has developed under the right big toe. I'm so cranky and I think I lost my camera. I'm totally out of it. Karen somehow tolerates my crap without exploding. How did she do it? We come to the freaking tent. Of course it was in furthest corner of the town. I eat, I drink. I go to sleep on a cot. Massage people chat with each other right in the sleeping area. It sucks. Who the heck woke me up in an hour, I wanted to sleep two. Garett is here and he dropped at 100K instead of planned 100M. I wonder. He tells me that I look great and he'll see me at the finish. Oh yeah ... like that's gonna happen. Karen and I walk out of town for an hour.

I'm alone and keep hiking up. I'm tired. I go to sleep for another hour by the side of the trail. It got cooler. I get up and power hike up to the pass.

The finish

It's dark already. Karen and I are making it down the last 2 miles and 3000 ft downhill. It's the steepest downhill yet. Wait a minute. It is the steepest downhill, cause it's the last one. It's foggy and I can't see town down below any longer. Darn! That downhill just never ends. Slow down man! It's better to finish 5 min later but in one piece. Here we are! It's Courmayeur. These streets would never end. How can a small town have so many long streets? Oh yes, that's the central square. I switch to the jog, faster, even faster, the crowds are cheering, people stop and scream Bravo! Complimenti! The red carpet. The final scan.

A funny RD is interviewing me at the finish. All I can think of is "lemme get those freaking shoes off my feet". Then Garett is interviewing me. I'm saying something stupid and incoherent. I'm empty. A beer, some food. We're walking to B+B and those two hundred yards are endless. I ask Karen to walk ahead so I can cut the corners. Locals cheer us up from the bar and buy us beer. Sweet! I can sit down and drink it. Suddenly there is no rush to go to sleep. They are mountain guides. So friendly and nice! Oh well ... it's time to sleep after all.

Tranquil excitement

It's morning after and I woke up in pain, excruciating pain that is. We have gallons of coffee at our B+B. Lisa is here. She is Paolo's girlfriend. She tells us sauna and massage are at the sport center. These are very cute spa issue undies, black for boys, white for girls. Oh European flare! These were beautiful 3 hours limping between jacuzzi, sauna, cold shower, and hot shower. 10 min massage was sweet but short. Now it's time to watch the finish. We get on to a restaurant patio right next to the red finish carpet.

Let's the feast begin. A French runner is all lonely at the next table. Come on, join us. It was the greatest four hour long lunch I ever had: a bottle of wine per person, plenty of food, plenty of screaming and cheering, delicious tiramisu, captivating conversation (only divorced shrinks could be so interesting in a sick way). And runners keep coming and coming. It rains a bit, an extra bonus for late finishers I guess. They come alone and in pairs and in larger groups. Some run, some limp, two old timers lean on each other, one of them can't hold his body straight, a japanese guy with a huge backpack, what a heck is in there, two guys dressed in pink baby-like clothes crawl to the finish whining, a guy with a big beer belly finishes forth from the end, people say that he was the very last the previous year. Ludo, Virgile, Laurent and the siren sit at the next table and cheer with us. I wish that day and wine would never end.

Special thanks

I would like to thank Chris Marolf. His blog, advice, and pictures helped me to prepare for the event and to keep me focused on the prize. I'm infinitely grateful to Michael Battraw for assembling me back together after my BIG tumble the very first night (Does anyone have his e-mail?). And of course Karen .. she was hiking up mountain passes in reverse direction multiple times. Sorry baby, sometime I just couldn't make it there before the nightfall. And who can forget the last 3 hours to the finish. Thanks to Beat Jegerlehner for lovely political discussion we had through the third night. I'm grateful to all the infinite number of runners and volunteers from all around the world who shared this epic experience with me.

Fallout and what's next

I've met my match. The freaking thing brought me to my knees. Now I understand all the pains and symptoms other runners were talking about much better. He-he. I wasn't totally clueless either. Everything is back to normal now. The toe nail has fallen off, bruises are gone, scratches have healed, the left achilles is quiet, blisters are gone. Speed is not quite back yet, but the last run was painless. What's next?


207 miles, 80,000 feet of elevation gain, 475 starters, 300 finishers, I've finished 146th in 131 hours and 48 min

No comments: