All year there had been another mountain looming in the distance, some other challenge around the corner weighing on my mind. At the end of that road lay Tor Des Geants, a trek around the Aosta Valley in the Italian Alps covering about 205 miles and 80K feet of elevation gain. After getting my first DNF at Ronda dels Cims, I had gotten in a pretty good block of training and was eager to get out there and race. Besides, the last time I went to race in northern Italy I ended up with a rather unpleasant helicopter ride afterwards. So if I could avoid that, I was at least making progress.
The race was one of those types of experiences that will continue to grow in value to me over time, and was complete with all the extreme highs and lows that might be expected during such an event. It was also on the most beautiful course I’ve ever set foot on and was embraced by the villages and rifugios we traveled through in an amazing way. Yes, there were a few logistical issues I wish could have gone better, but that’s to be expected for an event this large and something that I’m sure will continue to improve.
I almost hadn’t gotten in to Tor Des Geants, after getting refused as a “wild card” entry and initially coming up one slot short in the UK portion of the lottery. I still don’t understand the reasoning behind the country quotas and they certainly don’t strike me as fair – I would have gotten in on the first go with the same lottery number had I been counted towards the US quota (my current address is in the UK, my nationality is US). In any case I was definitely there to race; I had waited all year to show them why I should be there. But I still tried to focus my mindset away from the race and more on the opportunity for an adventure in an absolutely incredible landscape. I arrived to Courmayeur a few days before the start and spent my time relaxing below Mont Blanc, enjoying a few quick trips up the trails. During that entire time Mont Blanc never once took its head out of the clouds, keeping its peak completely hidden from me.
Unfortunately my relaxation was cut a bit short by the check-in process for the race: after waiting in line for half an hour I was given a ticket number and told to come back in a few hours. I’ve done bigger races, and races with a much more involved check-in process where they actually checked gear and made sure each person knew important safety information, but never have I ever encountered a check-in like that. By the time I arrived back at my room a housekeeper had taken my carefully arranged gear on the floor and tossed it all into one big pile. My afternoon of kicking my feet up and resting before the race turned into endlessly waiting around and then scrambling to get things back in order.
Still, I arrived at the start in great spirits. It helped that the race started at noon, giving plenty of time for me to actually sleep till my usual hour and get a good meal in. After making my way through the crowds I found a nice spot to sit in the starting corral and watched the minutes tick by till the start.
Quick, only 200 miles left!
I had heard that the start would be a bit fast. I also heard that you didn’t want to get stuck in the giant log jam when everyone funneled onto the trail. So I went out harder than I wanted to, but still tried to hold back and let the lead group go. I had no intention of caring what place I was in for the first half of the race and wanted to keep as close as possible to a steady effort (note: steady effort still does not necessarily equal steady pace).
On the first climb the temperatures dropped quickly and snow started falling. I tried not to get too excited, but I have no doubt that a wry smile crept onto my face. As much as I’m southern born and bred, most of my ultra experience so far is still in the winter. The cold is where I’m most comfortable and best know how to manage my race.
I continued up and over the pass, moving quite comfortably. We rejoined a road for a bit, where there were markings from about 5 different recent races. I followed the slightly wrong shade of green and lost around 10 minutes, exacerbating the mistake by letting my frustration get to me and trying to immediately make those 10 minutes back up.
Otherwise, though, I stuck to my plan. People would catch me, and I would let them go. I was moving at my pace and counting on being able to mostly maintain it. We moved through the first life base and into the night.
Coming out of the life base I got my first indication of what place I was in, but I continued to focus on just being in the mountains. The moon set and the clouds cleared. I stopped to look up. It had been many years since I had been at the right place at the right time to see the Milky Way, but there it was stretched perfectly across the middle of the sky. For a moment, I stood in wonder with every other thought pushed out of my head.
It didn’t take long for the mountains to remind me that their pleasures do not come without pain. We were approaching the first of a set of passes that would take us to around or over 10K feet, not all that high by some standards but enough for a lifelong low altitude resident like myself to start to feel the familiar nausea, headache, and light-headedness.
When I stepped into the next aid station someone on medical staff took a keen interest in my face. Apparently my nose had decided to join in on the high altitude fun and there was a bloody mess on my upper lip. After convincing them that I hadn’t fallen and there was nothing to be concerned about I continued on my way. The last thing I wanted was another unnecessary trip to an Italian ER.
Unfortunately the next pass was the highest of the race and it did nothing to alleviate my symptoms. My nose started dripping like a leaky faucet. Dangit blood, stay in my body! I need you for oxygen right now! I removed my buff to shove up the offending nostril and caught a glance behind me as I did. I could see a steady stream of headlamps coming down the previous pass. Being able to see people on the course hours away from me was amazing. At Frozen Head if someone gets seconds away there’s a good chance you’ll never see them again. I know that all too well.
This was also the first time there had been enough distance between aid stations for me to run out of water. It caught me by surprise and I found myself frantically looking for a water source. In my desperation I nearly drank from a cattle trough. The bottle was full and pressed to my lips before I thought better of it. Although in my defense the trough was fed constantly from a mountain stream and the cattle had probably been in the barn for hours.
When I reached the next aid station I wasn’t in a great spot. My stomach had locked up, I had a pretty bad headache, and for the first time I was feeling a bit tired. I decided to go down for my first nap to see if I could reset my stomach and my head.
Time to engage
Ten minutes later I awoke. Like complete magic, it had worked. The headache was gone, I could eat again, and I was ready to go. I charged out of the aid station feeling so good that I decided to go ahead and initiate the plan, i.e. actually start racing. I was only about 50 miles into the race but I couldn’t let this high go to waste.
I steadily started moving up, consistently one spot per checkpoint. I kept thinking how exciting it would be for Jessi and others tracking me to see that steady progress forward with every update. My pursuit was only interrupted by one thing: my phone. We were required to carry one and have it on, and I had forgotten to turn off my alarm. I kept thinking it would give up and turn itself off, but it was relentless. I resisted the urge to beat my pack against a tree until it stopped and finally gave in to dig it out of my pack and turn it off. Alright, back to business.
I had held back on earlier descents, resisting the urge to keep pace with people flying past me. Now, we had a descent of about 8,000 feet into Donnas. That’s the wonderful thing about these mountains: their prominence. Races in Colorado and elsewhere might be at a higher elevation, but it’s hard to find a single descent or climb of that magnitude. I would have to do Rat Jaw 5 times in a row to get that sort of change (albeit at a much steeper grade).
I cruised down the descent, passing people who had flown by earlier who were now hobbling, and showing up at aid stations like an over-excited puppy who just wanted to go back out and play while everyone sat around wishing I would just calm down so they could rest. Being the predator instead of the prey in this game is so much more fun.
But “pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.” A large part of success in ultras is in simply normalizing the highs and the lows: when things get rough push through and know that spring will come, but when things are bountiful take some of that extra harvest and store it for the inevitable winter. I failed to do the latter, and ate through my harvest in one gluttonous feast.
I started actually racing. Not just running my own race, but trying to play mental games and adapt my strategy to continue moving forward. By that point I was in 7th place, and I could see on the logs at each checkpoint how far ahead of me each person was. I started thinking how I could time my naps, and how I could use their naps, in order to get decisively past them. It was too early. There’s no such thing as being decisively past someone at that point in a race like that. It sounds absolutely ridiculous to say that nearly 100 miles into a race is too early, but it was way, way too early. Those kinds of thoughts should have stayed out of my head until probably the last life base, still close to 80 miles and over 30 hours away.
Here comes the sleep monster
I pushed off my own sleep hoping to catch the people in front of me and at least move into the top 5, maybe the top 3. I had only slept 10 minutes the first night, and as evening approached and night came my eyelids grew increasingly heavy. There was no gleam of the Milky Way to admire, no headlamps across the valley, not even a moon to keep me company. It was overcast and dark, and I was completely alone. For 20 hours I didn’t see anyone else on course. Every now and then I would catch a whiff of myself and be unsure whether I had stepped in something or if that was just what I smelled like now. Pretty sure it was the latter.
I tried to sleep at the next life base, but I couldn’t. I was in that strange area where I could have slept hours earlier, but now my body had released the last of the adrenaline reserves and I was like a plane gliding at 30K feet with no engines trying to stay out of a nosedive.
I started the next climb, and the doubts set in. Of course I can’t get top 5. I don’t belong in that tier of competition. I shouldn’t even be here. Why am I doing this? After this race I should quit. Momentarily I realized how absurd it was for me to be feeling sorry for myself: I was still in 7th place out of about 1,000 people, who were themselves out of many who had applied for the race, who were themselves amongst a tiny percentage of the population capable of even considering taking on such a challenge. And I was in the Italian Alps. A kid from east Tennessee out gallivanting through the Italian Alps.
But the fact remained that my upward momentum had ceased and I had started to roll back downhill. I was not only fighting sleep deprivation, but by this point my stomach was quite unhappy with me as well. Before the race when I saw how close the aid stations were I thought that I would be significantly handicapping myself by carrying a bunch of my own food around. But the aid stations had a fairly limited selection, and it did not vary at all. By that point nothing they had remained appealing, and my stomach was shutting down. I had no crew, and my only opportunity for other food was at the life bases every 50 km where I could access my drop bag. Even that would be devoid of the hearty, real foods that always work for me, like pizza.
I reached the 5th life base and went down for some “real” sleep, telling them to wake me in an hour. Unfortunately the magic didn’t happen this time. I had built too deep of a debt and the vicious cycle had begun: the more I slept the slower I moved, the slower I moved the longer I was out there, and the longer I was out there the more I needed to sleep. My stomach was also still pretty much on lockdown, and people had finally started to catch me.
It’s funny how much we want to assume patterns are linear, even when we know better. It’s especially funny for me, given that my entire profession (data science) would be pointless if patterns were that simple. Earlier I felt good, so surely I would keep moving forward. Now I felt pretty bad, so surely I would keep moving back. The top 5 is undoubtedly out of reach. I left the life base with Tiaan Erwee. He would end up finishing 4th. Not long after that I ran with Jens Lukas for a bit and we got lost for about 45 minutes due to confusion from the short Tor Des Geants / Tot Dret course split. Of course that completely eliminated any remaining chance. Jens ended up finishing 5th. 🤦♂️
The more I lost hope, the more prolific my napping became. I saw no point in trying to push through the weariness. Nearly every aid station, down I went for a power nap. My stomach continued to decline, shifting from lockdown to straight nausea and cramping. There’s a portion of the race that I honestly don’t remember anything from other than unsuccessfully attempting to puke outside a rifugio and trying to shield my distraught face from a photographer as I went by.
One way or another I ended up at Oyace, which I initially thought was Ollomont, the last life base (nope, still another climb and descent!). I sat to try to get some food in, and there across from me was none other than Ally Beaven. His race wasn’t going quite as planned either, but he at least had the look of someone who was 200 km fresher.
When I left the aid station I was shocked to learn that I was still in 10th place. After the section I just had it seemed impossible. It’s almost like it’s a really long race and no single section can completely make or break things. 🙄 Momentarily I got my motivation back up and decided that top 10 was still a worthwhile goal. Partway up the climb 3 people blew past me.
One of my favorite things about the region was the countless old stone farm buildings scattered through the mountains. I could only imagine how old they must be and the history of the people still there. Some had been maintained and were actually still in use, even with still not having road access (and I assume no electricity). Others had fallen into disrepair.
It was one of the ones in disrepair that Ally found me leaning against. I don’t recall our conversation, other than promising to meet him back in Courmayeur for pizza and gelato. Shortly after he left I arose, and continued. The thought of quitting never once entered my mind. It could serve no purpose, provide no benefit. This was the end of my season.
Here comes the sun
I don’t know where it came from, but a robotic resolve entered my mind. I was going to keep moving forward until I reached the finish. I finally reached Ollomont, had the most delicious omelette I’ve ever had in my life (I’m still at a loss as to how they made the eggs so fluffy), methodically switched out my gear, and continued on my way. There were only two big climbs left, there was no cutoff or place to chase, and no matter how many naps* it took I would make it over those climbs.
*a lot, the answer was that it would take an absurd number of naps
Night fell just as I reached Col Champillon, the next to last climb. I enjoyed the company of some Tot Dret runners on the way to the next rifugio. I was told that the next aid station was an easy 10 km away, so in a rare move I decided to hold off on a nap. It ended up being at least 15 km, and was by far my least favorite part of the course. It was gravel, dirt, or asphalt road the entire time, and mostly flat. At that point for me climbing was fine; it was mainly strength. Descending was fine; I could let gravity do the work. But running on flat, that required pushing my aerobic system in a way that I could no longer do. When Tiaan had passed me earlier he mentioned there were some really non-technical parts on the later sections of the course that you could make up a lot of ground on. The course isn’t really technical at all and at the time I had kind of laughed and thought “how could anything get less technical than this?” Well, this, this is how.
During this stretch I passed two signs that both said Bosses (the aid station location) was in 1,600 meters. Neither was correct. We even passed through a little village where Bosses was written on buildings. Nope, hairpin curve in the road and another few km on asphalt. When I finally arrived I got my nap and continued on, frustratingly along more road before finally getting back on the trail up to Col Malatra, the final climb. Somewhere along this climb I passed another sign that pointed back towards Bosses and said 1,600 meters. I was pretty amazed that they had managed to make a town that was one mile away from everywhere. Edit: apparently the signs were indicating the elevation of Bosses, not the distance to it… now things make much more sense.
The skies were clear on what was now the 4th night, with a large and nearly full moon. For large stretches I turned my headlamp off and went just by the moonlight. As exhausted as I was and as much as I just wanted to get to the finish at that point, the climb was undeniably beautiful. Rifugio Frassati at the top was incredible, and I was amazed at how it had been constructed up there. I took the opportunity for one last bit of sleep. My watch battery died, unable to last through my incessant napping.
As I stepped back outside I saw the headlights disappearing over the pass. It was within sight. It was also the steepest part of the course. After hauling myself to the top I felt as if the race were over. It’s always one of my favorite parts in an ultra, that point at which the easiest way to quit is to just keep going to the finish.
I descended from the pass and then I… I started going up? What was this? I had been promised all downhill after Malatra. My poles had been stowed, bargains had been made with my legs… why was I going up again? I heard another runner behind me and turned in exasperation. Dangit, he was French. I needed someone who spoke English to pass me so my complaints could be heard. I would even settle for Spanish. Que es esto?! Por qué estamos subiendo? No me gusta!
Just an aside here for anyone who is spectating, supporting, or otherwise present at an ultra:
1) Thank you so much for being there. You’re awesome.
2) Before you tell someone that there’s no more uphill left, please inspect every remaining piece of the course to be sure there’s not so much as a large rock or molehill to step over.
3) If you tell someone that there are e.g. 10 km left, please ensure that it is not actually 15 km. Generally, any actual distance in the 8 – 10 km range would be acceptable; 10.1 km would not be.
4) The only acceptable place to tell someone that they’re almost there is from the place that they’re supposedly almost to. If it’s too far for your voice to carry then they’re not almost there.
It turned out my race had more figurative than literal downhill left. After completing what I hoped was the actual last climb my stomach went into all-out revolt. It was physically growling, yet at the same time every step felt like I was getting stabbed in the gut and might puke. I don’t think I had ever experienced physical hunger simultaneously with extreme nausea. If I hadn’t had to keep running it would have been fascinating.
I blindly started following a couple of Tot Dret runners before we realized we were off course. With my watch dead I couldn’t consult my GPS position relative to the course. I pulled out the map on my phone, and then realized that we were just above the valley that I had run up from my hotel before the race. And there was Mont Blanc, not a cloud in sight! I had no idea how to say “I know for sure that this way is correct!” in Italian. After expressing myself as best as I could I took off, hoping they would follow. One of them did, but I’m still not sure if the other one ended up in Switzerland where he was originally heading.
Fortunately the frustration had somehow driven the worst of the pain from my stomach and I found myself legitimately running again. I finally reached Rifugio Bertone, where Ally and I had run before the race, and knew I just had a few miles straight downhill to the finish. While lost with my Italian Tot Dret friends I had dropped from 14th to 16th, and I figured those two people had to be close in front of me (turns out we had lost a lot more time than I thought). There was no reason to hold back, and I took off down the trail at what moments before had felt like an impossible pace.
I enjoy opening up at the end of long races in part just to see how much of my limitations was actually physical and how much was mental. If this descent were any indication, I had been having some serious mental limitations. I know that people feel like they’re moving faster than they are at the end of races, and with the dead watch I’ll never know my actual speed, but once I hit asphalt I honestly think my pace was sub 5 min / mile (still very much downhill). I tried to lift my arms entering town, but I couldn’t. My legs were absolutely flying but I couldn’t lift my arms. I checked quite a few splits after the race and didn’t see anyone who was faster from Bertone to the finish, which includes the trail section where I had to stop 3 times to let horses by.
I didn’t catch either of the people who had passed me, but I still flew through town with I’m sure one of the goofiest smiles ever on my face high-fiving every confused person in sight. I crossed the finish line nearly a day after I planned and still couldn’t help but feel enormous pride. This isn’t to belittle the other races I’ve done, but for me this was the first race other than Barkley where merely finishing felt like a huge achievement.
Pizza and gelato
After getting cleaned up and getting another nap, I met Ally for that pizza and gelato. Most places were closed for siesta time, but we were determined. We finally found a place that was open and it was every bit as delicious as I had imagined.
Then I took off to meet Jessi for a little loop through Geneva, Lyon, and Turin. There was more delicious food to be had, but more importantly a great few days with just her (sans kids) to relax. Between that and the race, it was the first time in over 6 years that I had gone an entire week without once opening my laptop to take care of something for work. Highly recommended, will do again.
On Sunday we made our way back to Courmayeur for the awards ceremony so that everyone could stand around for hours, possibly after sticking around for days, just to get their finisher shirt. The iron-on graphics on my cheap, tissue-thin shirt ended up sticking together and becoming deformed and damaged before I even had a chance to wear it (the pullover we got at check-in was pretty nice, though). Fortunately the organizers were kind enough to send me a replacement.
But, you don’t run that race for the shirt, or because of its stellar entry or check-in process. You run it because of the challenge, and because the course is absolutely incredible. Yes, there’s a bit more running through towns on roads than I would like, but otherwise it was the most beautiful course I’ve ever been on. And the people there were all incredible, from the race staff and volunteers to the people in the towns we passed through. This race would be an incredible experience even if it weren’t approached as a race at all but just viewed as an all expenses paid trip through the Alps with the supplies and logistics taken care of.
The hotel I stayed at, Hotel Vallée Blanche in La Palud, is a great example of the local hospitality and support of the race (also, huge thanks to Karen Jean and Dima Feinhaus for a ride back to La Palud after I finished!). Despite an initial misunderstanding the first night when they didn’t want me bringing pizza back to my room, they went out of their way to help: showing me where to leave my car during the race, a shuttle ride to the start, a shower and breakfast after the race even though I checked out days earlier, and some local honey as a parting gift. It was a great spot but even better people. I definitely plan on staying there if / when I return to Courmayeur.
I’ve now had a week to recover and reflect on my race. I still feel a great sense of achievement, but there’s also that feeling that I could have done much better: a better sleep strategy, not making my move too early, not losing 2+ hours to wrong turns, having crew that could feed and refocus me when I started to slip (or just carrying more food with me). All of these things really add up.
I’ve also learned the hard way this year that you can’t “cram” sleep. In many events this year I’ve had my normal horrible sleep in the weeks leading into it and then tried to just get a bunch in the days before. It doesn’t work like that, apparently. The year I finished Barkley, I was 9+ hours a night for a solid month beforehand.
I didn’t weigh myself for quite a while after the race, then 12 days after finishing I was nearly 8 lbs lighter than before the race. Normally, by the time the swelling and water retention from a race like that has gone away I’ve regained (or often, more than regained) any actual weight lost during the race. When factoring in all the pizza and gelato and other things I ate afterwards I’d say it’s safe to say I lost 10 lbs during the race. I don’t really know what that means, other than the race was really long and I really wasn’t eating nearly as much as I should have been.
I do feel much better now than I would have expected. I’ve been sleepy this week, and I had a bit of tightness and the usual swelling in my legs, but nothing is sore and there’s no painful sort of pain. Maybe my body is just getting more used to these things, or maybe my rampant napping over the last third of the race really paid dividends on the recovery, but after things of similar length and effort (Franklins 200, Barkley, Grand Round) my body has been pretty destroyed. Franklins 200 took a few months just for my feet to fully recover and contributed to my early departure from Barkley. Or, maybe at Tor Des Geants I had much more to give out there physically and I just mentally checked out. There’s really only one way to know for sure.
Gear and Nutrition
For a race this long, my gear was actually quite simple. Note: I have relationships with many of the companies mentioned below and much of the gear was provided to me. For a full list of those companies, and in some cases discount codes (which I get no kick-back from), see this page.
My shoes were La Sportiva Akasha. I switched to a fresh pair at around mile 90, and then a 3rd pair that was half a size larger at around mile 150. I never had any issues and would definitely go with those again for this race. I also wore La Sportiva shorts, top, and a Millenium Pullover insulation layer when it got cold at night.
My socks were XOSKIN, with toe socks and a regular pair of socks over top. I put a bit of Run Goo on my feet before the race and a bit of foot powder in my socks. At this point I feel a bit like the voodoo slugger in Major League, but since I started using all that I’ve never had so much as a hot spot on my feet and you’d better believe I’m going to keep doing it. I didn’t change my socks or reapply lube a single time during the race, and I also never changed my XOSKIN tights or long-sleeved form fit top (although I did briefly take the top off once when it get hot). The UD FK Gaiters are probably also partly to thank for that, as they completely kept debris out of my shoes.
I used an Ultimate Direction Mountain Vest 4.0 for my gear, hydration, and nutrition, which consisted of my usual strategy of a soft flask of Hammer Gel, Perpeteum leaving each life base, and an assortment of Hammer Bars and other “real” food. The problem is just that I didn’t take enough of it with me and ate too much aid station food. Hammer Fizz tablets were also quite handy for those times when plain water kind of lost its appeal.
For lighting I used a Petzl Actik Core, which was perfect for this type of terrain on a well-marked course. The larger NAO+ that I would use for a race like Barkley would have been a bit overkill. I kept the headlamp on its dimmest setting when I was climbing, and then turned it up brighter when I was descending. With this approach the battery easily lasted through the night.