This week, four months after completing the Tor Des Géants, I participated in a Skype interview with Claudine Bosio, a French filmmaker and psychologist. She is making a film titled Le Pays de Marie which looks into the emotional journey behind a Tor Des Géants finish.
Claudine first approached me at the Rifugio Frassati, only 20 km from the finish line.
It was about 2 am. Bruce was indulging in a short nap and I was warming myself by the fire, enjoying a bowl of broth and a mug of hot tea. We had one final ascent left, up 400 m to Col Malatra, before heading down into Courmayeur. It was peaceful in that gorgeous rifugio as other racers slept or quietly prepared for the long-awaited finish. All was done now.
As I sat, I was trying to grasp the concept of finishing this beast of a race. I was trying to think beyond my pain, my exhaustion and my deep fatigue, trying to summon some sense of excitement about being a finisher. My sentiments must have been transparent as she sat down near me, camera rolling, and asked a few leading questions. Long before then, my self-consciousness about my spoken French had disappeared so I contentedly babbled answers. It was like a dam being broken as I expressed some of the thoughts I had kept to myself over the past six days. Apparently, our little interview piqued her interest and she sought me out afterwards and asked to record a follow-up interview for her film.
Before this second interview took place, I had asked to have the questions in advance so that I could wrap my mind around the French vocabulary I would need to have at the ready, but Claudine insisted that would take away from the spontaneity of the interview. As a result, during our interview in French this week, I bumbled my way naively through complex emotional analysis, mis-conjugating verbs, being unable to retrieve simple nouns and wondering if I had even understood what she had asked. After the interview concluded, I caught myself thinking of better phrases or expressions that I wished I had said at the time.
So, with 20/20 hindsight, here is how I wish the interview had gone:
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CB – What has life been like since completing the Tor Des Géants?
MG – Life has simply carried on in its usual way. Since we returned at the beginning of a new school year, it was easy to quickly become immersed in work, with little time to reflect on the race.
CB – Looking back on the Tor, how do you feel about finishing it?
MG – I am proud of my finish and content with way that the race played out but I have not had any of the expected feelings of elation or excitement.
CB – What did you anticipate for the finish?
MG – I had heard stories of friends who were completely changed upon finishing. Those who were drunk with elation. Those who wanted to do the race over and over in order to reconstruct or improve upon that jubilation. But I felt none of that. I had simply done what I set out to do. If anything, I was disappointed that I had to shut down part of my receptive brain in order to finish. I was disappointed to have so many holes in my memory and to have been unable to enjoy it.
CB – At the beginning of the race, what did you anticipate?
MG – I pictured myself drinking in the gorgeous views and appreciating the quaint rifugios and hospitable volunteers. I thought I would be moved by the beauty of the Alps and be able to appreciate it. Instead, I thought along the lines of ‘Oh, that’s The Matterhorn? Let’s go’. Although I expected to struggle and to hurt, I thought those kinds of obstacles would pass. Instead, I was in extreme pain on most downhill sections and in tears of exhaustion at every Life Base. I did not have the ability to absorb the natural beauty around me. I blocked it all out.
CB – Did you have any specific points of struggle?
MG – I intended to abandon the race at Donnas Life Base. Before arriving there, I knew that I did not want to continue because the course was too difficult, too steep, too long for me. I was beaten.
CB – How did you manage to come out of that low point?
MG – Once in the Life Base, I allowed myself to cry, to break down. But then I began to follow the routine we had established – eat, drink, sleep. Deep down I wanted to finish my first 100 miler so I somehow talked myself into achieving this smaller goal. It was enough to get me back out onto the trail. I was able to outsmart myself. It was trickery and it worked.
CB – How did you get past the 100 mile mark?
MG – As we hiked out of Donnas, I thought on all the friends, family and supporters who had offered encouragement, trained with me and given me confidence. It pained me to think of disappointing them but I knew that these dear people would understand and embrace me again. More than anything, my motivation came from the waitlisted runners, complete strangers. I remembered the disappointment of being on the waitlist for this race. Knowing that there were about 1500 people who would love to be hiking out of Donnas in my place, I felt immense pressure not to squander this opportunity. It felt pathetic to drop out, having already denied someone else the opportunity of this race. The implications of quitting a race are far-reaching and I believe that setting a goal is an intense commitment. Having reminded myself of this belief, I did not consider abandoning again.
CB – What did you do immediately after the race?
MG – Bruce had to complete his medical studies – running on a treadmill and having CT scans – so I sat in a sunny grass patch near the tourist office and waited for him. I thought that maybe I should be waiting at the finish line and watching other runners finish but I had nothing left. I wanted to do nothing. I was like a deflated balloon. I didn’t even take off my shoes or my backpack while I waited for those couple of hours. Nor did I bother to get the gelato that I had been dreaming of for days!
CB – And now, back at home, do you find that the Tor has changed you?
MG – I suppose I feel like I have proven that I can take on any challenge and tough it out, whether it be a challenge in work, running, health, family or whatever. I know that I can persevere through the worst.
CB – How has completing the Tor changed your friendships?
MG – Nothing has really changed. If anything, I try not to mention doing the Tor because it becomes an obstacle. Occasionally, when someone finds out what I have done, they treat me differently. It intimidates. When talking about this experience, I feel like I am being exclusive or elitist – at least that is the feeling I get from others. But I am perhaps the least elite person around. It is really difficult to have such an enormous accomplishment but to be unable to share it aloud and to have others simply write you off as “that crazy runner”. It has created a loneliness.
CB – Would you like to add anything else?
MG – Bruce and I ran every step together although that was not our plan. It reads like a fairy tale romance. He provided me with enormous strength and encouragement and added forty hours onto his previous best time in order to stay with me. I benefited from his knowledge of the route and his running expertise. Although I took every step myself, I truly wonder if I could have completed the Tor on my own.
CB – Will you go back for another Tor?
MG – It takes a lot of time to train and travel to Italy so I highly doubt it. But it isn’t out of the realm of possibility. I am interested to see if I could do it alone and if I could do it better than this year. I would like to see if I could manage my time and my sleep in a more strategic way. But it is important to recognize how many people want to do this race and how many people were unsuccessful in the registration process. I need to step aside so that someone new can be given this opportunity.
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Of course, this is not how the interview went. For example, I completely blanked on the word for ‘feet’! But these are the questions as I remember them and the answers I wish I had given. I’ll let you know if and when this movie comes out and we can compare the two realities. Ciao!