738 athletes from 60 countries toed the line for the fifth annual Tor des Geants trail race. The Tor is a single stage, 330km, trail run on the “Alte Vie trails” 1 and 2. It is a counterclockwise loop starting and ending in Courmayeur. Courmayeur is located in the Aosta Valley, Italy’s smallest region. It is surrounded by Europe’s tallest peaks (the four giants of the Alps): the Matterhorn, Monte Rosa, Gran Paradiso, and Mont Blanc. The trail takes you over 25 mountain passes totaling 78,000 feet of vertical gain. This single stage race must be completed in 150 hours and due to the massive elevation gain/loss, sleep deprivation, and mental fatigue the dropout rate is 40% to 45%.
There are 7 life bases: Valgrisenche, Cogne, Donnas, Gressoney, Valtournenche, Ollomont and Courmayeur. At each life base a pin (see pic below) is awarded to the runner. The life bases are usually sport complex centers – big gyms with cots spread throughout the gymnasium or wherever there is open space, an array of food (pasta, soup, bread, crackers), medical staff, and lots of volunteers. You are allowed to recover and sleep as long as you want at a life base but at all other aid stations or mountain huts (Rifugios) you are only allowed to sleep two hours.
Start – Sunday @ 10:00am
The locals of Valle d’Aosta are genuine, kind and beautiful people; they know how to host a major sporting event. Hundreds of locals and spectators lined the cobblestone streets through the town of Courmayeur (and all the villages along the route) rang cowbells, cheered, and offered high fives. The first 20 miles were breathtaking and steep but uneventful until running down the backside of Col Crosatie. Out of nowhere, overlooking a beautiful mountain lake, there stood a massive stone memorial for Yuan Yang. It stopped me in my tracks. It was beautiful and heartbreaking. Yuan Yang died in last year’s race (2013) when he slipped on a rock and hit his head. I stood there looking at the memorial and looked at the stunning terrain that surrounded it. I thought about his family and friends and as cliché as it may sound, I had a feeling he was doing what he loved in a very beautiful part of the world. My mantra going into the race: Focus on the moment – Live/Be in the Moment -and seeing his memorial reinforced my desire to enjoy each minute of this journey.
The first life base: Valgrisenche (30.6 miles) – Sunday
I arrived at the first life base at 9:55pm; just under twelve hours. I went out very slow, in retrospect probably too slow. I had a goal. I wanted to finish in 120 hours. I followed a racer whose bib number was #90 meaning he finished in 90th place last year. I stayed behind him for the majority of the day. He was slogging. He was going so slow but I figured he knew what he was doing! I kept repeating to myself, ‘patience’ because the theme of The Tor is straight the ‘effing up and straight the ‘effing down, hours and hours of steep rocky ascents (one peak is a stair step to the next peak) and hours and hours of steep gnarly descents, then repeat day after day for 332 km (206 miles) on very little sleep.
I devoured some food and headed out solo into the night. I missed the turn onto the singletrack trail and luckily another racer behind me shouted. I was so grateful; this was my second time missing a turn and both incidences a racer in the distance shouted at me. The course is marked incredibly well, the two turns I missed were because it was dark and I was looking at the ground versus paying attention.
I leapfrogged other racers throughout the night and when I arrived at Rhemes at 2:44am; I decided to have my first two-hour sleep. I slept pretty solidly then woke up just shy of the two hours and continued on throughout the night- ascend, ascend, ascend…descend, descend, descend…. I got into a rhythm and enjoyed the solitude.
The second life base: Cogne (63.44 miles) – Monday 3:47pm
I arrived at Cogne and had a quick 30 minute transition. As I departed, I met Valerie, a strong, fast, mid-50’s, French badass. I only mention her age because I hope I’m as strong and just as much a badass in ten years. I was struggling to keep up with her. She had completed numerous races all over the world. We ran together to Rifugio Sogno di Berdze and planned to sleep there for two hours. We arrived at the Rifugio around midnight. Valerie ordered a delicious plate of polenta and we shared it (some mountain huts offered food for purchase). We attempted to sleep for two hours but there was a generator right outside the door and it was roaring loud. I slept on the top bunk next to the door and every time the door opened, the cold air and generator woke me up. (Looking back, I should of made an effort and moved to an empty bed in the back of the room.) Valerie didn’t have her bib number visible on the bed (the rules are to display your bib number so the volunteers know who to wake up because there is a two-hour maximum sleep rule at the Rifugios). Valerie was woken up early by mistake and headed out. I continued to sleep but was freezing. I headed out about 30 minutes after Valerie.
I spent most of the evening solo. As I hiked up a to 9,000 feet at 2 a.m. from Rifugio Songno di Berdze to Fenetre di Champorhcer, there was an amazing lightning storm in the distance that went on for hours. It was spectacular. As I dropped down into the valley headed toward Chardonney, there was a section which was pretty technical in the wet and dark. I stopped and put one headlamp around my waist and one on my head in hopes of picking up my pace. I arrived at the aid station and the weather turned for the worse — a torrential downpour. Martha and Bruce were at the aid station hanging out. I met Bruce a couple of months before The Tor when we attempted a 100 mile run from Bellingham Bay to the summit of Mt. Baker. I chatted with Bruce and his wife Martha and we contemplated sleeping in the lounge chairs in the corner instead of heading out in the torrential rain but then we thought twice about trying to sleep in an open tent that was loud and cold. It’d be a waste of time. We put on our rain gear and headed out….luckily the rain didn’t last long. I spent the rest of the night running with Martha, Bruce and a guy from Belgium.
The third life base: Donnas (92.39 miles) – Tuesday 7:35am
A couple of miles shy of Donnas, I ran into Gretel, a badass lady from Australia. Prior to the race, I had met her in Courmayeur and we stayed at the same hotel — Hotel Croux — which is the most friendly hotel in all of Courmayeur. We chatted and shared stories and then went our separate ways once we arrived at the life base. I spent three hours and forty-five minutes at this life base and I have no clue what the hell I did for that long. This was the first time I wished I had a crew. I wished I had real food to eat, I wished I had someone to help reorganize my drop bag because it was a mess, someone to help re-tape my feet and someone to monitor the time I spent at the life base. I was definitely starting to feel fatigued because the little tasks started to feel like a lot of work. I spent twenty minutes just staring at my feet in the bathroom. I finally changed my clothes, brushed my teeth, washed my face, re-taped my feet, ate some food (mainly soup), and slept for 40 minutes. It was hot and noisy, making it near impossible to sleep but I did fall asleep because I woke myself up with a huge body spasm. I left Donnas at 10:11 am (11 minutes behind my pacing chart, my goal of 120 hours) and shortly afterwards I ran into Graham (Anacortes, WA) who I emailed back and forth for months prior to the Tor and who I’d met the night before the Tor. It was rejuvenating to hike with him and we took a few pictures before he went on his way. He attempted The Tor last year but did not finish; this year he was determined to finish ( And, he did! 126:51 ) but his main goal was to truly enjoy himself. I took 130 pictures and I bet he took close to 1,000. He literally stopped to smell the roses and took pictures of all the flowers along the never-ending climb up and out of Donnas. His enthusiasm was contagious.
The fourth life base: Gressoney (124.5 miles) -Wed 7:22am
Donnas to Gressoney was the most difficult part of the course: 32 miles and 15k vertical gain in the dark and in nasty weather. It was wet, muddy, slippery, slimy, and a nightmare. I would take two or three steps and fall on my arse. I was having PTSD flash backs of my Adventure Racing days, slogging for hours on end, and not making much progress. I was so frustrated. My base layers were already wet by the time I stopped to put on my Outdoor Research rain gear. Regardless of wet layers my OR rain gear kept me warm while I was moving.
I was running with Jackie at this point. I met Jackie the same weekend I met Bruce, attempting the Mt. Baker run. We decided to sleep at Niel. There were no beds available so we had to sleep in the two huge tents outside that the race organization had set up. There were two cots available, one in each tent. At 6,000 feet it was effing cold outside and I was freezing. I took off all my wet clothes, which was pretty much everything, wrapped a wool blanket around my body and slept on a cot that had cold air blowing up from the ground. I was shivering uncontrollably. But, I thought, if this was an adventure race, I’d be sleeping on the ground in a bivy sack. So suck it up. I slept for (I think) 1 ½ hours. I put back on my wet, soggy, muddy clothes and went to the other tent to wake Jackie up. She wanted another half hour of sleep and I agreed. I went back into the tent, took off my wet shoes and clothes again, and tried to sleep for an additional half hour; a total waste of time.
We left Niel around 3am for another long steep ascent to the summit. We were almost at the summit of Col Lasoney when we heard and then saw a woman lying on the ground on her back. It was Valerie! Valerie was having heart issues and she asked us to raise her feet in the air. I grabbed her feet or Jackie grabbed her feet (one of us did) and she told us to hold her feet for twenty seconds then lower them. We did this twice. It wasn’t working. She was on her phone, talking to her husband (I was shocked she had cell service) and he told her to take her medication. She told us she’d be fine and to continue on with our race. I did not want to leave her; I offered to stay with her. She was adamant and convinced us she was totally fine, it wasn’t a big deal. She insisted that we continue. She said it had happened before, she would take her medication and wait a few minutes and then she would be recovered. I was not comfortable leaving her on top of the mountain pass. I looked backed at her; she saw me look back and shouted…. ‘Go, I’ll be fine.’ I ran with Valerie for seven hours earlier in the race and I knew this was her third Tor and that she was a very experienced ultra runner (she had travelled around the world racing) and she had a PhD in Pharmaceutical Science. With a knot in my stomach, I took her advice, and continued on. I saw her at the finish line and she had to be evacuated by helicopter off the mountain. It brought me to tears when she told me she had to be evacuated. I can justify the hell out of it and say she convinced me she was okay, she was adamant and/or I wasn’t thinking straight, I’ve been racing for 58 hours on less than five hours of sleep – but there is no justification – it wasn’t right! I should have stayed with her until help arrived.
The fifth life base: Valtournenche (146.83 miles) -Wed 7:54pm
When I arrived at Valtournenche, Jackie and I realized our drop bags had not arrived and it was our fault. (The race organizations hands out a duffel bag “drop bag” to each racer, you are only allowed to use this bag; they transport the bag to each life base). Back at Gressoney, the last life base, we didn’t leave our bags in the proper spot. When you check out of each life base, you drop your bag next to the checkout. Sleep deprivation and fatigue caused this screw up. We found a volunteer who spoke English and he did some research to see if our bags would be delivered before we headed out to the next life base. The volunteer said they’d be there by midnight (it was only 8pm). While we waited for our bags, I slept for two and half hours. Besides my down jacket, I had to sleep naked because all my clothes were wet but I was happy that I was not at 6,000 feet freezing my arse off in a tent. I was in a warm gym, on a cot, with a wool blanket. After waking up, we finally found out the bags were transported to Ollomont, the next life base. Beside dry clothes and other necessities, my spare food was in my drop bag so I had to fill up a plastic zip lock with food from the table – potatoes and bread. Jackie had to borrow batteries and then we finally headed out after midnight.
From Valtournenche to Ollomont was a slog. I started to hallucinate. My favorite hallucination was a panda bear standing on the trail wearing a red stripe tie. I was stoked to see the panda bear and wanted to see him again. My other hallucinations throughout the Tor included rocks that turned into families huddled together in fetal positions, tree trunks turned into people, cars, or huts and a little girl standing alone on a hillside cheering for me (my favorite). She was a cute little girl and I thought it was so sweet she was cheering for me but then I thought ‘what is she doing out in the middle of nowhere by herself?’ By the time I reached the hillside, she was gone!
The sixth life base: Ollomont (176.1 miles) Thursday 5:18pm
Jackie was having intestinal problems at this point in the race. We hung out at Ollomont for an additional 45 minutes, figuring out if she wanted to continue. She text messaged a friend back home (Canada) who she trusted and asked his opinion. She decided to continue and she struggled up Col Champillon. We stopped at the first Rifugio on the way up to Col Champillon to eat more food (broth with orzo) hoping that she would recover. However, she didn’t. We finally summited Col Champillon and then faced a dark, gnarly, steep, overgrown downhill into Pollimont. We arrived around 1am.
As I neared the Ponteille aid station, I saw Dave. I was totally surprised and so happy. He had been waiting there for two hours eating and drinking nettle whiskey (or something like that) with the aid station crew. The mountain hut crew stated only nine or ten women had been through the aid station. Dave was biking in Switzerland for the past five days while I raced. I knew I’d see him at some point along the course but I had no idea I’d see him at Ponteille. I was beyond excited. Dave and I chatted as we waited for Jackie to eat more food, in hopes it was going to make her feel better, but nothing was working. She was still experiencing intestinal problems. Dave offered to walk with Jackie to St. Rhemy’s, the next aid station that offered medical assistance. I took Dave up on his offer and sadly said good-bye to Jackie. I ran most of the way down to St. Rhemy but then the sleep monsters hit big time a few miles before the aid station. I was so tired; I was swerving all over the road. I arrived at St. Rhemy, the only racer at the aid station tent. I put on my down jacket, ski mittens, and started shoveling pasta into my mouth while I tried to sleep. The aid station volunteer kept swatting me, shaking his finger at me, and telling me ‘no’ in Italian that I’m not allowed to sleep at the table. He did this three or four times, it became a joke. But I couldn’t keep my eyes open; I thought please let me eat a spoonful of pasta, sleep for a couple of minutes then eat another spoonful….but no — he kept swatting me. I finally finished my pasta which felt like forever and then Jackie and Dave arrived. At this point, Jackie was sick and the medical staff strongly advised, if not insisted, that she drop from the race. After running 300km (186.5 miles) she dropped and the next day was admitted to the hospital for a few hours for blood test and IVs.
After chatting with Jackie and wishing her well, I decided to take a 20 minute nap to fend off the sleep monsters. I had 18 miles left including one steep technical climb. Dave decided to wait for me and then hike with me (he was still in his mountain biking shoes) to the summit, the last summit of the race: Col Malatra. We hiked in the dark for a few hours and gradually a beautiful sunrise appeared on our ascent up to 9,632 feet. I had been waiting for this moment, I talked to a handful of Tor finishers prior to the race, and they all said the same thing – just get to Col Malatra! And, when you get there, stand at the summit and savor the moment because your journey is coming to a close. So, I did. I stood there looking around at the beautiful terrain then I looked down.
Holy crap, I have to descend THAT! I descended the steep rocky scree trail for miles (which felt like days) until I reached Rifugio Bonatti, the second to last aid station and about two and half hours to the finish. I was so impatient. I wanted to be done. I was still running or shuffling the flats and downhills but even the slightest incline in the trail brought me to a crawl and almost to tears. This was my lowest moment in the race. I was struggling to hold back the tears. If Dave wasn’t with me, I would have sat on a rock and cried. I didn’t realize it would take this long to get to the finish. I did not want to see one more uphill or one more downhill and definitely no more rocks. I had climbed 78,000 vertical feet and descended probably the same on loose crappy steep gnarly trails. After reaching Bertone, the very last aid station, I still had 45 minutes to the finish. I felt like this death march was never going to end. After 332.3km (206 miles), 122 hours and only 10 hours of sleep I finally reached Courmayeur and the red carpet I had dreamt about for eight months.
Holy Crap! That.was.hard!
The 2014 Tor results: Results