My contribution to the irunfar.com “Voices of the 2014 Tor Des Géants” article

Since the 2010 inception of Tor Des Géants, I have been immersed in my husband’s photos and stories of the unbelievable beauty and unforgiving terrain that this monster of a race provides. Like vampires tasting blood for the first time, once-bitten runners have been drawn back again and again to feast upon those succulent 330km. While the ‘race’ aspect of TDG never appealed to me, a mid-pack runner who dabbles in ultra distances, the idea of a week-long jaunt in the Italian Alps struck a melodious chord. So when my husband and I were trying to decide how to celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary, I insisted on the 6-day, all-inclusive running holiday, also known as Tor des Géants.

Start Line Selfie (where we actually said 'good-bye! Have a great race!')

Start Line Selfie (where we actually said ‘Good-bye! Have a great race!’)

The mountains are truly breathtaking in those last days of summer, with yellowing grasses, wildflower seed heads and blue grey rocks below a bluebird sky. Crowds of locals hiked up the first few passes, hollering “Bravi! Bravissima!” at the passing snake of ascending runners. Finally this long-awaited event was underway and I was ready to indulge all my senses.

But after delighting in those first blissful 24 hours of the race, the reality of the task at hand became evident. These mountains are steeper than anything I have ever encountered and, with around 25 mountain passes remaining, the learning curve was equally steep. Although I was consistently strong on the ascents throughout the race, the descents soon filled me with dread as the soles of my feet began to slough off and my knee screamed out with every downhill step. Right from the beginning, I made errors with both the management of sleep and of time spent in life bases which eventually played havoc with my enjoyment of the route and with my cut-off time cushion.

But the saving grace for me was my unplanned trail partner – my husband, Bruce. Despite our intentions to run TDG separately, we stuck together, step-for-step, for the entire route. Having already had two stellar, top 40 finishes under his belt, Bruce stepped into the role of “Tor Guide” this year and offered me both expertise and encouragement for the entire 144 hour event. Although I set the pace and explored the limits of my strength, he gets the credit for keeping me in a positive mental state that allowed me to push ever forward. Very few couples could withstand the 24/7 stress that this event demands but we seemed to thrive in it, becoming stronger as a couple with every mountain pass.

TDG taught me that 20 years is not enough.

Same place, six days later. Finish line kiss.

Same place, six days later.
Finish line kiss.

Tor Des Geants – Initial Recap

My dream of competing in and completing the Tor Des Geants 332 km run in Italy’s Aosta Valley has been realized. But the expected feelings of pride and accomplishment have not yet come to the surface. With almost 144 hours of intense focus on the ultimate goal, my memories and emotions became tightly compressed in the back corner of my mind and are only now beginning to unpack, expand and be appreciated.

At the start line, ready to take it all in!

At the start line, ready to take it all in!

My first 50 km were a dance of pure amazement in the beauty of the high Alps. Every switchback, every open pasture, every view of the line of runners was a delight before my eyes and I soaked it in with joy.

But as that first day waned, I saw that the dizzying beauty of severe ascents and descents continued to intensify as I began to fade. From kilometer 50 to 150, I descended into a dark mind of exasperation. I found myself trying to find reason with the route, thinking through the threatening terrain and trying to come to grips with unending intensity laid before me. My interior dialogue sounded something like this:

The steepness of this trail is unreasonable.

These switchbacks are treacherously tight.

This descent is down-right dangerous.

These rocks are ridiculously placed.

This trail cannot continue in such an unsafe manner.

Why would anyone risk their life to simply attain a view?

This scree slope is so unsafe with so many people on it at once.

Who would create such a deadly course?

For hours, I stayed in this state of negative dialogue, my educated brain thinking of all the reasons that this event was plain and simply stupid. As we arrived in Donnas life base (148 km), I was awash in tears, exhausted and ready to abandon the race. My husband and trail partner turned to me as I sat on a bench and wept and he said,

You have a plan – eat, drink, sleep. Follow your plan and figure out how to get through this. You wanted to do this. You knew it would be hard.

And with that, he left me to sort myself out. And here, an amazing thing happened. As easily as turning off a light switch, I abandoned reason. Instantly I understood that, in order to complete this race, I had to put my brain aside. My sole focus had to be ‘keep moving forward towards the finish line’. This event has no room for analysis.

Don't think about these endless rocks. Just keep your eye on the prize.

Don’t think about these endless rocks. Just keep your eye on the prize.

So with my brain disconnected from the task at hand, I was able to follow my plan and managed to exit that life base. For the remaining 184 km, I hiked, ran and made decisions that would help me move along, never again entertaining the idea of dropping out. In fact, I was so effective in denying my brain access to my surroundings that I am still unable to recollect events, mountain passes, valleys and rifugios that we passed in those remaining four days. As regretful as that sounds, it was the only way for me to be successful and it worked. When you think about it, the mere idea of running for 332 km is completely unreasonable so renouncing reason is the only reasonable way to deal with the endeavour.

I don't remember this one. In fact, out of 30 mountain passes, I can only recall f

I don’t remember this one. In fact, out of 30 mountain passes, I can only recall four.

I will soon put together a more detailed report, outlining the seven different sections of the route, but first I have to figure out how to reconnect my brain.

There is only one week left before we leave for our Tor Des Geants 338 km run in Northwestern Italy. The race itself begins in two weeks. As my training days wind down and the race looms ever closer on the horizon, I endlessly wonder if my preparations have been enough. How do you prepare or train for an event that is bigger than your imagination?

When received my acceptance into the event, I made myself one promise:

If anyone asks me to go for a run, I must say yes.

It seem like a pretty simple guideline and I have followed it. I think I have accepted every offer, except one when I was out of town (at a race!). With a dedicated group of trail running friends who have all had their own racing goals this summer, I have managed to run with a buddy for almost half of my runs. Most of those shared runs were the long, mountainous loops that took up a good chunk of the day. Many more of those runs followed a day of solo training, where I had worked alone on speed or hills. I have become used to running on tired legs and luckily my trail buddies are patient and haven’t minded waiting for me to catch up along the way.

So even when the TDG doles out ascents and descents that are way beyond my level of preparation, I will be able to think back on my training with a smile, thinking of those beautiful trails at home and those dear friends who have made me strong.

Here are some trail pics taken on those fabulous days with those friends (most of these have already been posted on FB in my One Per Run album):

Is that a trail? With Kelsey and Todd on Red Rotor

Is that a trail? With Kelsey and Todd on Red Rotor

Wild flowers on the rockey outcrop of Upper Queso - with Todd and Kelsey

Wild flowers on the rocky outcrop of Upper Queso with Todd and Kelsey

"There's a black bear in that clearing" - Twister trails with CVRR

“There’s a black bear in that clearing” – Twister trails with CVRR

Summiting Albert Edward with Bruce and Todd

Summiting Mount Albert Edward with Bruce and Todd

Caught in the mist of Mt. Becher - with Kelsey and Todd

Caught in the mist of Mt. Becher with Kelsey and Todd

Mtn Bike Trail Art on Crafty Butcher with Kelsey

Discovering new mountain bike trail art on Crafty Butcher with Kelsey

Hot and steep descent on Forbidden Plateau with Kelsey and Todd.

Hot and steep descent on Forbidden Plateau with Kelsey and Todd (photo credit: Todd Gallagher)

Climbing out of the log jam on the Boston Ridge Trail with Jerry, John, Todd and Kelsey (photo credit: Jerry Van)

Climbing out of the log jam on the Boston Ridge Trail with Jerry, John, Todd and Kelsey
(photo credit: Jerry Van)

 

Fabulous sign placement on Upper Puntledge Plunge trail - with Bruce

Fabulous ‘no diving’ sign placement on Upper Puntledge Plunge trail with Bruce

Using the Furtherburger stream to refill water bottles with Todd

Using the Furtherburger stream to refill water bottles with Todd

A casual MOMAR reconnaissance run with Peter on Upper Thirsty Beaver

Finding more art on a casual MOMAR reconnaissance run with Peter on Upper Thirsty Beaver

An brand new trail which gives an odd perspective on Cumberland's downtown

Jerry showed me a brand new trail which gives an odd perspective on Cumberland’s downtown

Our Cumberland Long Loop finishes off on a nasty clear cut with 2-storey-high slash piles that we call "Gateway to Corporate Greed" - with Todd, Kelsey, Steve, Jerry and J.P.

Our Cumberland Long Loop finishes off on a nasty clear cut with 2-storey-high slash piles that we call “Gateway to Corporate Greed” – with Todd, Kelsey, Steve, Jerry and J.P.

Running through a Raven Rookery high above Perseverance Creek on Bear Buns with J.P.

Running through a Raven Rookery high above Perseverance Creek on Bear Buns with J.P.

Mountain Bikers build the best trails! This cantilevered bridge is on Race Rocks trail - with Todd

Mountain Bikers build the best trails! This cantilevered bridge is on Race Rocks trail – with Todd

Running up a beautiful switchback trail called Blue Collar with Jerry, Todd and Steve (photo credit: Todd Gallagher)

Running up a beautiful switchback trail called Blue Collar with Jerry, Todd and Steve (photo credit: Todd Gallagher)

Thanks team! Every step with you has helped!

Kusam Klimb 2014

Having been Comox Valleyians for over 2 years, Bruce and I now have annual traditions to follow. Since doing something twice comprises tradition, the Kusam Klimb event is now one. Each year on the Saturday of the summer solstice, about 450 outdoor enthusiasts gather to enjoy 23 km of trail, climbing from sea level to almost 5000 ft and returning back to sea level. It is as grassroots and community-driven as an event can be.

Don't let those metric numbers fool you!

Don’t let those metric units fool you!

In order to make the most of the longest day of the year, our little group of runners, Todd, Kelsey, Bruce and I, met up at our house for a 5:00 am departure. It takes about an hour and a half to drive from Courtenay to Sayward, which allowed us just enough time to check into the race and line up for the portapotty before the 7:00 am race start. We easily met up with Steve and Karl near the Heritage Hall starting area, completing our group of local training friends.

Once again this year, the start line scene pleased me to no end. Beside wizened hikers, clothed in expedition wear and laden with heavy cordura backpacks, there were skinny shirtless dudes and dudettes decked out in compression calf sleeves and zero-drop trail shoes. This is an event for everyone – no exceptions.

At the check-in table, we each received our complimentary cotton t-shirt and a nifty thermos lunch bag (or six-pack cooler) along with our chip-enabled race number. After briefly sharing snippets of memories from last year’s event, we ambled to the start line and set off.

Most of our group had done this 23 km run last year so we knew what to expect. After a 2.2 km teaser pavement run to the Bill’s Trail trailhead, the route begins its ascent. For the next 7 km, you climb steeply and steadily for almost 1500 m (just shy of 5000 ft). There are sections where ropes are necessary and very few places where you can manage more than a shuffling pace. GPS gadgets are unable to detect forward movement due to the steepness. Strava decided that I was not moving for much of the time. Unfortunately again this year, the cloud cover was low, preventing us from seeing the 360° views from the H’kusam pass and from Keta View lookout. Instead we were treated to slightly cooler, moist air as we made out way up through the fog.

I have been working hard on my climbing legs this year so I pushed the pace whenever possible. I tried to find my own space, free of other people, so that I could monitor how I was feeling and stay within my comfort level. But comfort is not a word for this course. With sweat dripping steadily off my eyebrows and the sound of shallow panting breaths for the entire climb, I finally crossed the summit in 1 hour 53 min.

My Kusam Klimb efforts, according to Strava

The initial downhill section is incredibly steep and ropes have been put in place to help descend. But this year, there was very little snow on the course, meaning that there was little opportunity to glissade down the hill using the ropes for balance. Instead, there was a fair amount of slightly out-of-control running through recently thawed mud, hoping to avoid trip-wire roots and submerged rocks.

Soon enough, I reached the 2/3 Hut Shelter (10 km) and popped out on an ATV track which descended more gradually. For the next 13 km, the steady grade allowed for my legs to operate like windmills – just spinning freely, touching down gently with each turn.

An easy. wide descent

An easy. wide descent for about 13 km – although here I look like I’m barely holding my balance.

Little did I know that Bruce was hot on my heels. Despite his very recent recovery from Shingles and this initiation back into the world of running, he was the next person photographed at this point.

Bruce approaching Rainbow Bridge

Bruce approaching Rainbow Bridge

As I continued down towards town, I knew that I was far ahead of last year’s time. I crossed the finish line in 3:21, which is a 30 minute improvement over last year. This awarded me 44/458 overall, 13/243 in the women’s race and 3/65 in the women’s 40-49

Yahoo! Hill training really works!

Yahoo! Hill training really works!

But the story of the day belongs to Bruce – he finished just a few minutes after me in 3:24. Although he was 3 minutes speedier last year, this year he decided to run the race only 2 days before, having been flattened by Shingles for the past six weeks.

Take that!

Take that!

And with that, our little group re-assembled at the finish line and began sharing trail stories, filled with lies and embellishments. It was a stellar day of effort and enjoyment. Congrats to Kelsey on her third place finish, to Steve for his longest trail run to date, to Todd for toughing it out and still finishing fast and to Karl for being the most consistent of us all. I’m already looking forward to continuing the tradition next June!

For the story of how the real runners of the Comox Valley did in this event, you have to read the Comox Valley Record sports section of July 11, 2014. Here you will learn about the real ‘who’s who’ when it comes to running tough mountain trails. ;o)

See you on the trails!

The Happy Wanderer

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