2023 Tor Des Geants – Nocturne Valdostano no. 3

More than most of the vague references or terrible dad jokes that serve as my blog post titles, this one probably needs a bit of an explainer. Nocturne: a work of art dealing with evening or night; especially : a dreamy pensive composition. Valdostano: from the Aosta Valley in Italy. Number 3, because this was my third attempt circling that valley for the Tor Des Geants. Like so many other random things, I learned the word nocturne from playing Zelda as a kid.

But this year was unique. Looking back at it, now a few months later, it does feel like a dreamy musical composition – an intricate web of people and pieces that had to perfectly come together at just the right times, weaving their way through multiple parts with subtle but powerful shifts in tempo, key, and dynamics. I did not finish where I had hoped to, but I was left in awe of the experience I had. It had never been made more clear to me that that’s what I want to spend the remainder of my running years doing: things that even when they don’t turn out as planned I’m left with no choice but to say, “Wow, what an awesome experience! I sure am glad I did that.”

If you’d like the abbreviated version of that adventure, refer to the handy illustration below. You might have to zoom in, or view the full-size image here. For a bit (ok, a lot) more detail, read on.

Third Time’s the Charm… right?

I have a love / hate relationship with Tor Des Geants. I love it, and it seems to hate me back. The route circles the Aosta Valley along the Alta Via 1 and 2 trails, covering somewhere around 212 mi with about 82K ft of vert (340 km and 25K m). The mountains are indescribably beautiful, the people are wonderful, and I find a new favorite place to eat every time I turn around. I was incredibly fortunate on this attempt to again have the support of a local crew: Marlene Jorrioz, Margot Jorrioz, André Comé, Marta Arlian, Yannick Verraz, Martina Barailler, Martina Chiono, and Hervé Donnet. Their generosity, knowledge of the area, and flexibility when my schedule fell apart were all essential in making it around the loop this year. I owe an enormous thank you to each of them. All photos and videos, unless otherwise noted, were taken by one of them.

I guess it’s not all that hard to see why I love running here, but it’s more than just the scenery. Photo: Kaytlyn Gerbin, a few days after my 2021 DNF

But I’ve yet to have a result at Tor Des Geants that I’m happy with. In 2019 I started to slip out of podium position late in the race then gave into sleep and essentially gave up before nearly wandering into Switzerland and making my way to the finish line a day late. In 2021, still entirely inexplicably to me, I ended up with rhabdo just 50 miles into the race. Fortunately I stopped before any serious damage was done.

After that early DNF last time (one of only two that I’ve had outside of Barkley), my main goal was to be feeling well enough to fully enjoy and appreciate the mountains, villages, and rifugios (chalets built for hikers, many of them quite impressive) the course winds its way through. But of course I had ambitions beyond that, my personal goals amplified by the fact that no American has ever won and only one has even cracked the top 3 – Nickademus de la Rosa, another Barkley finisher. I shared some of my other pre-race thoughts in the interview below.

Part 1: The Plan

The Tor Des Geants start will always be hilarious to me. People jostle for position heading through Courmayeur like they’re making their move in the final laps of a track 5K. In 2019 we came through the first mile in about 6:30 (4:00 / km). This year we slowed to 7 minutes… so much more reasonable for a race only a handful of people have ever finished in under 3 days, with 4 days being good for the podium some years. The problem is that passing is difficult once we turn onto the trail for the first climb, but that early it would probably be better to be stuck behind someone moving slower than you want than in front of someone moving faster than you want.

At this pace we’ll be back in time for lunch tomorrow!

My plan, especially with the warm early temperatures, was to hang back near the bottom of the top 10, ideally in a chase group behind the leaders. I would prioritize getting my fluids and calories down, and bide my time. There was an incredibly strong field this year, though, and on the first descent more than 10 of us were still clumped together in the lead. Galen Reynolds and Damian Hall were there – my friends, rivals, and SWAP teammates. We had schemed a bit before the race, and it was nice to think we might spend substantial time together, but halfway down the first descent the pace felt a bit hot to me. I stuck to my plan, dropped back, and figured I’d catch them later. Even in a race that long it can be mentally difficult to let people go – maintaining visual contact and having it feel like a race are highly motivating.

A bit of pre race scheming

I continued on through the first aid station, avoided the disastrous wrong turn I made in 2021, and although I was a bit farther back than I planned I was right where I wanted to be. I was happy, relaxed, and confident with it. The first life base, Valgrisenche, is about 30 miles in with a long fairly flat section heading into it. The course still averaging over 15% grade despite the number of long flat sections going in and out of aid stations shows how ridiculously steep most of it is.

It’s basically a road ultra

Passing through one of the little villages in that flat section, a large dog that was standing right next to its owner lunged to try to bite my butt as I went past. I felt the front of its teeth hit me. Fortunately, as a scrawny ultra runner, I have no butt. So it came up empty and I continued on unharmed.

Made it past the dog and feeling great!

Coming out of Valgrisenche I counted the bags of the people in front of me. I was in 10th – perfect. I had kept myself just where I wanted to be, and felt I would be able to steadily move up. In a race that distance, especially with people going out fast, unfortunately it’s also typically a safe bet that a number of people in front would implode, with one or two probably not finishing. It’s never an outcome I would hope for, but one that does have to factor into the calculations – and a reminder to try not to be one of those people myself.

Fortunately since I had a crew my actual drop bag was really light when I had to carry it up this hill

Unfortunately on the next descent I took a wrong turn. It was just at dusk when it was too dark for good visibility of the trail markers but not dark enough to get me to take my headlamp out, so I followed the GPX track on my watch when there was a fork in the trail. I knew that it wasn’t the most direct route to the next aid station, but I didn’t want to accidentally cut the course. It turns out that the GPX track was wrong, and didn’t match where the course markers were. It cost me 10 minutes, but was a mental setback just as I felt I had been starting to move up and regain contact with people I had let go early on.

So, umm, looks like I took the scenic route here

In the past I’ve fallen victim to worrying about little things early on that don’t matter in a race this long. Most of the time even bigger things aren’t very important. It’s the repetitive, compounding things that cause problems. So I brushed off the mistake and moved on. As long as I could stay focused and in control to avoid compounding problems, I was fine.

New shirt, refueled, cooler temperatures ahead. We got this.

I went up and over Col Entrelor and through Euax Rousses around the 50 mile mark in great shape. It was the spot where I had DNF’d in 2021 and in 2019 required an unplanned recovery nap before I could continue. It felt huge to make it through there in good shape. Just ahead of me was one more big climb, Col Loson, before I thought I could put my altitude worries behind me.

Part 2: The Collapse

I felt strong and confident starting the climb, the last of three straight big ones. I had been getting calories in and following my plan. Then suddenly, like a puppet that has its strings cut, I had absolutely nothing. No physical energy, no mental energy. I couldn’t move forward and had no desire to. I had to lay down on the trail. It didn’t feel like fatigue from running, there was no gradual onset or buildup, just sudden complete and utter exhaustion. I had never experienced anything like it.

One of the fun parts of GPS data is being able to look back and identify where and how long incidents like this were

After about 10 minutes I managed to force myself to continue. I slowly made my way to the top of the climb, getting passed a few times in the process. On the other side I staggered into Rifugio Vittorio Sella. I got down some soup, went upstairs and fell in a bed for a nap, got up and stumbled outside to puke, and about an hour after arriving I carried on down towards the next life base. It was an entirely familiar yet baffling experience. I really didn’t feel like the altitude was the problem. My issues had started near the bottom, not going over the pass. My head was fine, my legs were good, all individual systems checked out. It was just like someone had unplugged me. I coasted down to Cogne, where my crew did their best to recharge me.

Fortunately Sophie stayed back enough to keep whatever’s wrong with me from rubbing off on her, and went on to finish 5th female

The picture above is in Cogne, with my concerned friend Sophie checking on my corpse-like body. It instantly became one of my favorite ultrarunning photos. Sure, epic mountain views are much nicer, but you can get those through “normal” activities, like going for a hike. What sets us apart are the ridiculous lengths we’ll go to to find as many of those views as possible, and the support we’ll give each other to do it.

After nearly another hour I arose and continued on. I left with Kyle Curtin, who tried to help get me going again. It wasn’t the first time he had seen me like that. He was a pacer for me at Hardrock in 2022, when I ended up with altitude sickness and was puking at the Burrows aid station for four hours. Leaving the life base was another one of those flat sections, though, and I wasn’t able to keep pace with him as we headed back towards the trail.

Kyle and I preparing to leave Cogne

Fortunately it wasn’t long to the next aid station. I found a toilet, trying anything I could to reset and shake whatever was wrong with me. Unfortunately nothing helped, and it wasn’t long before I effectively threw in the towel. I found a rock and sat to enjoy the view and contemplate my options.

Part 3: The Case Intervention

I had never felt this way. I’ve done a lot of similar things, in some terrible conditions, and faced a lot of ridiculous and unexpected difficulties along the way, but this was new. Was I sick? Was it a hangover from the sleepless redeye a few days earlier? Was it lack of recovery from the Long Trail and Barkley? Not enough calories on that warm first day? Some strange combination of many small factors like 2021 probably was? At least I knew it wasn’t rhabdo this time.

At first I thought maybe I could just walk the rest, enjoying the time out in the mountains. I would tell my crew they shouldn’t bother providing me with any more support, and just treat it like a catered hike around a beautiful valley (which isn’t a terrible plan for one year far in the future). But every step had become laborious, my breathing and heart rate jumping like I was running hard uphill.

The only option I seemed to be left with was a DNF. My first ever non-Barkley DNF was partially because I didn’t want to fully wreck myself shortly before my 1st Tor Des Geants, my second DNF was my 2nd Tor Des Geants, and this would have been my third. The TDG curse continued.

After about 45 minutes I got up and slowly started moving towards the next place where I could conveniently quit. I spent half an hour slowly eating soup at a rifugio, then lay down for an hour at the next. Not sleeping, just laying there. The doctor took a look at my ghostly white face, and wouldn’t explicitly tell me I should quit, but said I should consider my options. I was about 25 hours into the race and I had spent about 5 of the last 8 just sitting or laying around.

I was more sure I was quitting than in anything I had ever done before. I had scripted the conversations with my coach, wife, and crew. I had written the social media post in my head. The decision had been made.

Around 10 miles and 5 hours after I had sat down on that rock, I finally arrived at Champorcher, a highly accessible and quittable spot. As I jogged down the last little hill, I heard a voice over my shoulder ask how I was doing. I mumbled something about having a decision to make and looked to see Stephanie Case, a turn of events nearly as unexpected as my initial collapse going up Col Loson the night before.

She followed me to a table where my crew had laid out everything I might need – including a perfectly timed cup of gelato that put some color back in my face. Twenty minutes later, before I knew what had happened, I was on my way again. Actually, I still don’t know exactly what happened.

Stephanie was important, but the miracle of my crew getting me this cup of gelato at exactly this time also can’t be understated.

Stephanie knew where I was. She had been there plenty of times herself. She also works to help people get past obstacles much bigger than what anyone faces running around mountains. The two of us don’t agree on every single thing, but I have the utmost respect and admiration for her. Maybe her words carry so much weight for that very reason: I know that she’ll be caring and respectful but she also won’t hold anything back. The pictures below give a great illustration of how that conversation went. The captions really aren’t even needed.

Me: You see, the thing is…
Stephanie: Alright, go ahead. Get it out.
Me: But I guess what I really mean is…
Stephanie: Yeah, ok. You done yet?
Stephanie: Here’s the actual thing…
Stephanie: Alright, come on. On your way now.

I know she didn’t tell me anything I didn’t tell myself. But I think by being an external voice she was able to say those things in a pure way that wasn’t competing with other thoughts. Self motivation is important, but it lives in the same place as self doubt. Sometimes, internally, it’s hard to get one without the other. Sure I rallied at Hardrock last year (which actually also involved Stephanie – despite being in a bad spot herself she’s the one who finally got me to leave the Burrows aid station after a 4 hour stay), but I couldn’t think about that without also thinking how I had one and a half entire Hardrocks left.

Part 4: Curtin Call

After staggering into Champorcher ready to quit I had dropped to around 35th place. I continued down to Donnas, and felt a gradual improvement in my energy and confidence. When I reached the life base quitting wasn’t even a thought. It was business as usual and I was soon on my way up the seemingly endless climb to Rifugio Coda.

At Perloz, part way up the climb

At La Sassa my crew came through with more perfectly timed food. My appetite had returned, and I ate an entire pizza. I was back. I continued on to Rifugio Coda, a beautiful perch with expansive views in both directions. I arrived just after sunset and there seemed to be a bit of a party going on – for everyone except Kyle Curtin. He was bundled up and slumped in a corner, both of us the opposite of how we had last seen each other in Cogne.

Mmmm, pizza and spreadsheets

We left together and made it over the rough, rocky terrain to the next rifugio, where we napped for about an hour and a half. Then we went on a tear. We took turns in front dragging the other one along. Climbs ticked by with ease, descents felt like we were gunning for Strava crowns. Heading down into Gressoney I got a little bit of separation because I was eager to get to an actual toilet (most rifugios have toilets you have to squat over, which isn’t very fun after running around mountains for days). Kyle got me back on the next descent into Champoluc, where I was hanging on for dear life while he flew down the trail.

And here we go…

Like Stephanie, Kyle had been a key piece of my Hardrock resurrection the year before (he was my pacer at the time). Being able to talk to and relate to each other was a big boost – we kept each other mentally engaged and alert. When we left Rifugio Coda, both of us were just determined to finish. That was essentially it. Gradually, just like they had at Hardrock, those goals kept shifting all the way until we had our sights set on top 10. In 24 hours together we moved all the way back up to 12th place and during the daylight stretch we gained half an hour on the race leader.

If you zoom in here, I look significantly more tired than Kyle

Part 5: Return to Courmayeur

At Rifugio Lo Magia, what had previously seemed impossible was within reach – getting back into the top 10. The only problem is that I was starting to struggle with sleep. After my earlier near total collapse dropped me out of podium contention, I had decided that I wouldn’t skimp on sleep the rest of the way. There was no need to become a zombie and make it miserable, or risk another meltdown. I wanted to genuinely enjoy the rest of the route.

Rifugio Magia, just before Kyle and I parted ways

So Kyle pushed ahead (and went on to finish 9th!) while I stopped for a nap at Cuney. Have a listen to The Adventure Jogger for more on our time together. Unfortunately Cuney was a horrible choice for a nap location, being one of the higher altitude rifugios and having very little separation between the beds and the noise of the main area. I also got cold, and had to convince them the best way for me to warm up was to get out of there and get moving.

I’m not sleepy, you’re sleepy

So I napped a bit more at the small bivouac shortly after, then by the time I got down to Oyace I was in bad shape, only made worse by a confusing and circuitous course reroute. I slept again there, and was still sleep walking on the way out. Two time champion Oliviero Bosatelli found me face down on the trail, said something in Italian, and continued on after my thumbs up.

Ok now I’m sleepy

I just made it over Col Brison before the rain rolled in, arriving in Ollomont soaked and covered in mud (and a bit of cow poop) but slightly revived. Eat, nap, repeat: up and over Col Champillon just before more rain arrives. I stopped at Ponteille on the other side, where I took shelter for about 20 minutes and sat making myself little pizzas out of bruschetta bread, cheese, and motzetta before continuing on the long gradual downhill to Bosses where I could dry off, eat, and nap again.

The last place I could see my crew before the finish

I was eager to get on my way, though, and make it over the last big climb, Col Malatra, before the night or more rain arrived. It was a tough climb – I was physically, mentally, and emotionally drained while at the same time still in disbelief I had even made it that far. But I got to the top just in time. Somewhere there’s a drone video of my entire climb over the pass, the drone operator using what was left of its battery knowing I would be the final footage of the day.

Once over Col Malatra there’s one more little climb before joining the TMB for a few miles that seem to take forever. In 2019 I turned the wrong way on the TMB and nearly wandered into Switzerland. This time I was met by a herd of horses – two of them walked right up and bowed their heads as if offering me a ride. I politely declined, and coasted along and down to the finish just before midnight. I ended up finishing 16th, exactly the same place as 2019 although about 8 hours faster. My full run is on Strava here.

It was absolutely amazing having the support of this group. Grazie mille!

Final Thoughts

1. The course is just as beautiful and wonderful as I remembered. After the fact, it’s unbelievable to think I nearly quit at Champorcher and missed out on everything I saw and experienced over the next 57 hours. I have a tremendous amount of gratitude to my crew, race volunteers, people like Stephanie and Kyle who randomly showed up at just the right times to help get me around to the finish this time, and to my family and coach, David Roche, without whom I wouldn’t have made it to the start.

How could I possibly not want to run here? Photo: Kyle Curtin

2. I still have no idea what made my body so suddenly quit on me starting the climb up Col Loson. There are some possible factors I can try to fix, and others I’ll just have to accept as variables out of my control. My recovery was at least remarkably easy: no DOMS, no foot issues, no brain fog, nothing. Just a bit sleepy and congested. That indicates to me that it was something preventing me from pushing to my limits rather than my limits actually being lower (although those extra naps on the last day could also be a big factor in the recovery). A few days after the race I was nimble enough to help Galen break back in to his accommodations by climbing through the little ventilation window in the top of the bathroom wall. Not to say that Galen wasn’t nimble enough for it, but Galen is a giant compared to me and probably wouldn’t have fit through the window.

Kyle and I on a “recovery hike” in Cervinia a couple days after the race. Unfortunately conditions were pretty terrible.

3. The field was stacked this year and didn’t have the decimation it usually sees up front. Hopefully this is a trend rather than an anomaly as we collectively figure out how to do these tough races. In any other year my time would have been top 10 and Kyle’s top 5. Franco Collé broke his own course record and the women’s winner, Emma Stuart, had the 2nd fastest time ever (after Sabrina Verjee’s course record last year). Coincidentally, I’m also posting this just days after the exciting news that Francois D’Haene intends to run Tor Des Geants in 2024. The chart below shows splits for Franco, 3rd place finisher Galen Reynolds (who ran most of the race in a group with a few other people, including Damian Hall), Kyle, and me. If my goal is to podium here then the gap on that chart might look insurmountable, but a few small things can make a big difference in either direction in a race like this. Once I subtract out all the hours spent not moving the gap gets quite reasonable. And apparently I have many years to do it, based on what I view as the most impressive performance of the race: a 13th place finish by John Tidd, at 59 years old!

4. The switchback situation is still a problem. In the US cutting switchbacks is strictly forbidden, both in and out of races. It causes major erosion problems. In the Alps it seems to not be a big deal. After wasting energy getting upset about it in past years, this year I discussed with others before the race and we decided “when in Rome…”. But then after doing it some I felt bad and stopped. It’s well known that some people even take “alternative routes” at TDG. Little cuts really add up over a race this long. For fairness, or at least so those who want to do right can, races need to make explicitly clear: is there a defined, flagged course that must be followed, or is the goal to just get between checkpoints as quickly as possible? Both are great race formats, as long as everyone knows which one it is and rules are enforced. I thought that in previous years cutting switchbacks was specifically forbidden in the rules. I was unable to find anything searching through the rules this time, but after the race I finally found a mention in the “Ethics” section of the race website: Stick to the paths marked, without taking shortcuts, in order to prevent soil erosion. The page that’s from (https://www.torxtrail.com/en/content/ethics) appears to have been there without any updates since 2012.

5. Where does this all leave me for Tor Des Geants? Well, I’ve become a bit obsessed with actually getting this one right and breaking my curse. It’s also one of my absolute favorite places. I might have put an app on my phone for learning Italian. The travel and the time it takes are a bit problematic, though. Part of my problem might also be its timing in September, and my inability to sit still without some big event in the summer that likely has lingering effects. In any case, though, I know it’s one I should always be able to walk away from saying, “Wow, what an awesome experience! I sure am glad I did that.”

I can see the calculations churning in my own head

Gear and Nutrition

Note: I have relationships with many of these companies. For a full list, see Partners.

I relied on the La Sportiva Cyklon for most of the trail, the shoe that’s been my go to for steep and technical terrain since it was released a couple of years ago. At Perloz I switched to the Jackal 2 Boa, my current favorite all-purpose shoe, since the second half of the course is generally a bit less steep. I wish I would have held off a bit longer until Niel, though, as the terrain on that section is quite technical. I switched back to Cyklon at the end when things got muddy.

I had my usual Ultimate Direction (UD) Mountain Vest, and the waistband pockets of the UD Velum short to stash small items. I also used the UD Ultra Jacket and Ventro Windshell pretty extensively during the wet and windy sections.

I used XOSKIN’s XOUNDERWEAR throughout as well as their socks (toe socks with a pair of normal socks over top), with zero chafing or blister issues. For light, I again used a Petzl NAO+ as my main headlamp with an Actik Core as the backup. My watch was a COROS VERTIX 2, which made it the entire race with around 40% charge still remaining and was very useful in keeping track of my planned splits and times to support points.

For nutrition I used Tailwind in nearly every flask, accounting for most of my hydration, electrolytes, and about half my calories. The rest was filled with the usual assortment of Supernatural, Maurten gels, and snack food. Support points had the usual selection of “real” food, including those perfectly timed pizzas and gelato from my crew.

2 thoughts on “2023 Tor Des Geants – Nocturne Valdostano no. 3

  • 2024-01-05 at 4:00 PM

    Hi John,

    Thanks for such a thorough report, sharing your insights and turn of phases. Enjoy what you have planned for 2024. Cheers Martin


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