Ollomont to Courmayeur – 48.8 km (332.3 km total)
(Click here to go to Section #1 of our 332.3 km TDG adventure)
Section #7 – Ollomont to Courmayeur
“Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
One thing that struck me during the next climb, up to Col Champillon, was a comment that Bruce had made several days earlier in section #2. He had said that he admired the way that the Italian people embraced the outdoors. When we arrived at the rifugio nestled just below the Champillon pass around lunch time, we found it packed to the rafters with families who were out for a day hike. The Italian people, both young and old, adore their mountains and spend their spare time exploring them, enjoying the beauty of their country. As they watched us refuel before heading up the trail, their comments were only supportive and encouraging. There was no sentiment of “You are crazy” or “I could never do that” among these folks; none of the sentiments of disbelief that usually greet us at home. Instead they were proud that their mountains were being scaled by an international crowd. I was suddenly aware at the relief I felt at not having to justify my love of the mountains. Here, this pursuit was normal.
As we began to descend, my knee felt great for the first few switchbacks. But, all of a sudden, the knife pain to which I had become accustomed was now on the other side of my patella. The fancy blue taping that had been applied in Ollomont was overcorrecting my knee and causing new and more excruciating pain on the outside of my kneecap. I stopped a few switchbacks later and ripped off all the blue tape, balled it up and stuffed it up my pant leg. The pain was still extreme, bringing tears to my eyes. At one point, I told Bruce that these tears were not to garner sympathy. These tears were because my pain was at 9 out of 10.
After the long, steep descent and huge, rocky steps eased, we dropped down to a rifugio and could finally see the dual accordions that we had been hearing during the descent. As well as the regular aid station grub and delightful tunes, they had an enormous cauldron of polenta cooking over a fire and, when we showed interest in their traditional foods and cooking methods, they offered us some grilled, salted meat that was perhaps the most delicious food of the whole course.
Using the offical polenta paddle, Bruce stirs up a tasty brew – and earns us the tastiest morsel of meat we have ever savoured!
After that rifugio, we travelled down a gentle dual track that reminded me of a cross-country ski trail. With the big steps behind us, I was able to shuffle along the downhills most of the way to St Rhemy En Bosses. As we rounded the corner to the aid station, the entire town seemed to be out, ringing cowbells and calling out. Bruce played it up and encouraged them to make more noise which they readily did.
Everyone in Saint Rhemy En Bosses came out to welcome us into town!
We made our way to the seating area and dove into plates of pasta. One English-speaking volunteer sat with us and told us all about his honeymoon in Canada. He had travelled across the whole country, including Baffin Island, and obviously had fond memories of it. He was eager to practice his English and share Canadian place names and memories as well as information about his town and his involvement in the TDG.
While we were eating, a news team from the National TV station had arrived at the aid station and were giving a live feed about the TDG. All of a sudden, Bruce and I were being shuffled out of the food tent and onto the street where we were briefly interviewed about the race. In our combined broken French, we managed to communicate that we were celebrating our 20th wedding anniversary at the TDG and, with that, the newscaster signed off for the night. It was apparently a big deal for the small town of St Rhemy En Bosses (pop’n >400) to get featured on the national news so we were instant stars back inside the food tent.
(Here is a link to the RAI TV video clip. The race is featured from minute 9:25 to 19:20. Our snippet is at 18:50)
We grabbed two cots in the main building for a two-hour snooze before the final ascent of the course. We were woken by the arrival of a large group of runners and their noisy supporters. Suddenly, the rifugio was filling up so we grabbed our packs and headed out. We figured that this big group of runners were trying to stay ahead of the cut-off times and we were about two hours ahead of them. Our cut-off time cushion was becoming a little tight. We headed out into the darkness at 11:00pm
We continued travelling along a city road and were almost run down by a familiar mini-van of crew, speeding along the otherwise empty streets. The road became gravel and we chattered away as we hiked. Suddenly Bruce stopped and asked when I had seen the last trail flag since it has been a while since he noticed one. For the first time in the race, we had gone off course. After some discussion, we turned around and headed back down the road for about 10 minutes before we found our missed turn. At that point, the markers had been placed on both sides of the gravel road, making the sharp right turn less noticeable.
Back on course, we wound our way gently up the hill-side. This was not a difficult climb. We skirted back and forth across a river and climbed up through cow pastures for hours. We seemed to leap-frog a gravel access road as it switchbacked up the slope. Finally we arrived at rifugio Frassati around 1:30 am. It was an absolute haven – sleepy, warm and peaceful. There were many empty tables and a roaring wood-burning stove in the center of the room. Runners were quietly eating, rummaging through their packs or heading up to the sleeping loft. We took over a table and Bruce instantly lay down to grab a 30 minute nap. I had soup and tea and briefly chatted with an Italian woman who was making a film about the race.
Having a quick nap at Rifugio Frassati before our final mountain pass.
Feeling refreshed, we bundled ourselves up in most of our gear and headed out of the rifugio, ready to climb those final 400 m to Col Malatra. As we left the building, we both stared, disbelieving, at a mountain biker who was heading out on the same trail as us. Who mountain bikes at 3:00am? On trails like these?
The climb up to Col Malatra was only steep at the very end and, in the complete dark, it didn’t seem very treacherous. Suddenly, there were metal steps in the rock face and a rope leading up. A few steps later, we were at the pass. Two volunteers were there to guide us up the rock face, through the magnificent rock cleft and down to the other side of the narrowing. With wind whipping the dust up into the air, we stopped for a brief kiss and headed down. It was about 4:30 am.
Upon reaching the metal steps of Col Malatra, a volunteer’s hand appeared to help me up to the rock cleft.
Once again, the downhill was difficult but at least this was the last downhill. As was the usual case, the initial steepness of the descent quickly eased and the slope became more runnable (for those without intense knee pain!). Bruce insisted that I lead the way so we went at my excruciatingly slow pace and he became very cold. At one point, I sat down to get a nutrition bar out of my bag, lay back and looked up at the thousands of stars. It was another spectacular, crystal clear night but Bruce’s chattering teeth were rattling in my ear so we moved along. Rifugio Bonati came into view seconds later and we headed in to warm up. Our stay was relatively brief, just long enough to have some tea and a 15 minute snooze. Being a fully-booked rifugio with paying guests, we runners were kept in a fenced-off section of the main dining area. The rifugio staff were beginning to prepare breakfast for the waking guests as we left.
As we headed out, the sky had lightened enough to forgo the headlamps although sunrise was still a few hours away. The route from Bonatti to Bertone was wonderful. Not only was the trail forgiving underfoot and undulating as it traversed the side of the mountain, we were treated to the most spectacular sunrise I have ever witnessed. The first rays of sun illuminated the top of Monte Bianco with an unearthly pink, immediately making me feel warmer.
First photo of the unbelievable Alpenglow on Monte Bianco at about 6:40 am
For the next hour, we watched the glow on the mountain increase and become evermore radiant. It would have been easy to sit back and watch this display, and perhaps we would have at any other point in the race, but with the finish line truly in our grasp, we pressed on.
It just got more and more beautiful as we got closer.
Rifugio Bertone was a mere formality. Bruce and I had hiked up to this spot in the week before the race so I knew what to expect from here on in. It wasn’t easy by any stretch – nature’s version of a rock staircase for a little less than an hour – but there were friendly, early morning hikers the whole way who encouraged us along. Passing familiar landmarks, like the road crossing and the bridge, were thrilling. As our feet finally struck the pavement at the edge of town, we burst into a run and prepared ourselves to soak in the long-awaited moment.
Finishing the Tor Des Geants together.
Captured from the live feed of the finish line (thanks Steve and Wade), the finish line kiss makes it official.
Another finisher photo.
Finishing at 9:30 am has its perks. The streets were lined with people and, as we neared the town center, people began shouting “Canada!” and friends were calling our names. We crossed the finish ramp hand-in-hand, kissed and were treated to a brief interview with the race announcer before leaving the finishers area.
143 hours 26 minutes and 25 seconds is an incredibly long time. It was much longer than I had imagined but it still fits within my goal of 1)finishing and 2)staying ahead of the cut-offs. Funnily enough, this time still garnered me 9/18 in the old ladies category! 337 out of 440 total finishers (720 starters!) and 32/44 women.
I am forever grateful to my dear husband, Bruce, for sticking by my side throughout the race and providing me with endless encouragement and insider information. When I chose TDG as an epic way to celebrate our epic marriage, I never imagined that we would run together. In fact, I was quite insistent throughout our training that we would run our own races. But there we were, hand-in-hand at the finish. Constantly I am reminded that Bruce is a treasure to behold. I have truly been fortunate to be the beholder. A lifetime ago, when I chose him and he chose me, it was the smartest thing either of us ever did. And we continue to live happily ever after.
Every couple married for 20 years should invest in matching jackets.
Section 7 – 48.8 km in 21h 38m
Cummulative Total – 332.3 km in 143h 26m
Total Life Base/Rifugio Down Time = 30h
Total sleep = 16h 15m