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.

Rifugio Frassati is a modern building with all the amenities, nestled just below Col Malatra (photo credit: climbandtrek.it)

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.

Inside the rifugio, I sat and warmed myself by this pot-bellied stove and chatted with Claudine (photo credit:climbandtrek.it)

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:

– – –

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.

– – –

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!

 

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

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!

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!

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

Captured from the live feed of the finish line (thanks Steve and Wade), the finish line kiss makes it official.

Another finisher photo.

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.

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

Valtournenche to Ollomont – 47.2 km (283.5 km total)

(Click here to go to Section #1 of our 332.3 km TDG adventure )

Section #6 - Valtournenche to Ollomont

Section #6 – Valtournenche to Ollomont

“There are no impossible obstacles; there are just stronger and weaker wills.” – Jules Verne

There were only 100 km left. Two thirds of the course was done. Heading out of the life base, I felt generally good but knew it would not last long. I was becoming quite familiar with this routine. I would feel completely spent upon entering a life base, mostly due to the steep and rocky descents and the toll they took on my knee, and then I would feel somewhat refreshed afterwards, knowing that a painless, uphill grind awaited me. Bruce and I were able to run some of the trails leading out-of-town but I knew that the real tests would come once darkness fell again and once we began the next descent.

The profile for this segment intrigued me. I loved the idea of having one big ascent and then staying up above 2500 m (8000 ft) for the next ~18 km, bagging peak after peak. Also, this segment held at least six mountain passes, leaving only two passes after Ollomont.

The climb took us up towards a dammed lake and we briefly stopped at Rifugio Barmasse to refuel and to chat with Pieter (Belgium) and Beat (USA) who we had been following for about 100km. At this rifugio, we saw our first ‘controller’ who was spot-checking racers to ensure that all mandatory gear was being carried, specifically the rain gear and the “long sleeve microfleece”. As we chatted with the controller for few minutes, I found out that my long sleeve, heavy weight wool, IceBreaker hoody would not have been permitted, had he bothered to check my gear. For quite a few kilometres afterwards, Bruce and I discussed the merits of microfleece over wool and the inconsistency of rules between the pre-race gear check (where my wool top was permitted) and the mid-race check (where my wool top would have been deemed inadequate). I am just relieved that I didn’t have to deal with a four hour penalty for carrying the wrong type of top, regardless of the fact that I was actually more prepared for foul weather.

As we made our way up in the warm and sunny afternoon, I began to recall some of my hallucinations from the previous night. As I stepped from rock to rock, I remembered how I had been seeing silly cartoonish faces in each rock and, as we hiked along now, I could still make out faces. I took some photos of rock faces to prove to others that I wasn’t actually losing my mind.

Caesar eating an apple

Caesar eating an apple

Pacman!

Pacman!

Laughing old man

Crying baby face

Laughing man in a tall, tall hat

Laughing man with long eyelashes in a tall, tall hat

This one is a little bit spooky!

This one is a little bit spooky!

A cute little lichen caterpillar

A cute little lichen caterpillar

Large forehead monster with green lichen eyes

Large foreheaded monster (the friendly kind) with green lichen eyes

Once we reached the top of Fenetre de Tsan, we were faced with a double diamond scree descent of tight switchbacks. Here I put my massaged knee to the absolute test and, once again, it screamed with every step. But I was able to shuffle along and block out the pain to a certain degree.

Heading down the steep switchbacks of Fenetre de Tsan. Bruce is only one switchback ahead but a huge distance downhill.

Heading down the steep switchbacks of Fenetre de Tsan, Bruce is only one switchback ahead but a huge distance downhill. See what I mean about rocky steps!?

If you look closely, you can see the twenty or so tight switchbacks of the Fenetre de Tsan descent.

Looking back at the Fenetre de Tsan descent. If you enlarge the photo, you can see the twenty or so tight switchbacks and the traverse across the slope to our vantage point.

Night fell sometime after rifugio Cuney and, once again, my memory draws a blank. The only memory in this night is of the tiny Bivouac Clermont, where the three volunteers were cooking up some of the most tasty pasta I had ever had (although Angela would laugh at that comment since the pasta was ‘re-gifted’ from one runner to the next).

Evidence of the delicious, re-gifted and re-heated pasta in Bivouac Clermont

Evidence of the delicious, re-gifted and re-heated pasta in Bivouac Clermont, served by the kindest people you ever met. It was tiny inside!

In this section of high passes, there were very few places to rest or sleep. We pressed on, with the intent of grabbing a few hours sleep in Oyace-Close. But my brain protested mightily to this and I was, once again, awash in hallucinations and visions that kept me moving incredibly slowly.

This time, I was searching for somewhere to sleep. I could see that there were hundreds of tents set up right beside the trail and when I finally caught up to Bruce (or, more truthfully, he stopped and waited for me), I asked him why we couldn’t rest for a while in one of the tents. He patiently pointed out that there were no tents. Instead, I was looking at a boulder rockfall in a creek. Then I challenged him in a race to the next aid station and I felt like I was flying down the hill, giggling the whole way. The race probably only lasted a minute or two before I lost interest.

At another point, I found myself stopped and staring at a severed giraffe head. I desperately wanted to pick it up, drag it along to show Bruce but I knew that he would be unimpressed with the severed head because it would surely have caused me to move slower than usual. In hindsight, I’m quite sure it was a big branch that had been used to poke at a campfire and I am quite glad that I didn’t bother bringing it. (After the race was over, 2nd place finisher Nick Hollon made a video about runner hallucinations in which I recount my experiences in a wild-eyed, still sleep-deprived frenzy.)

I desperately wanted to sleep but the river valley we were descending had a constant cold breeze, forcing us to continue along. We finally we crossed over a bridge and began the final climb to Oyace-Close, but I just could not stay awake and I was moving in a series of staggering zigzags. At one point, Bruce said, “we can stop and rest here” and he indicated a mossy patch at the side of the trail. In an instant, I flopped down and fell asleep, still with my trekking pole straps on my wrists and my headlamp illuminated. Ten minutes later, I woke up because I was cold and because I had rocks poking into my chest but that brief pause was enough to get me into Oyace-Close. Bruce didn’t sleep at all on the mossy patch but instead stood guard and kept an eye on the clock.

Evidence of why I was moving so slowly!

Evidence of why I was moving so slowly!

Oyace-Close was perhaps the worst aid station of the entire course. The volunteers were all gossiping in one corner of a large, echoey hall and the food tables were empty of most foods. But worst of all, the sleeping area was in same room, bright with florescent lights glaring. There were only ten cots in total and most were occupied. I took the one empty cot and Bruce tried to sleep on the wire springs of a cot with no mattress. For two hours, I was dead to the world and, when Bruce woke me, I was writhing with the same whole-body pain that I had experienced at Saint-Jacques. We managed to find a helpful volunteer who brought us a huge portion of parmesan polenta to share, which was absolutely delicious. We headed back out onto the trail just as the sky was beginning to lighten.

As we headed up towards Col Brison, we were rewarded with our first views of Monte Bianco, a clear indication that the end of this adventure was drawing near.

Monte Bianco seems to be just beyond this pass but it isnt

Monte Bianco seems to be just beyond this pass (but it isn’t)

There is a pass up there somewhere. Col Champillion

There is a pass up there somewhere (Col Brison) and Monte Bianco seems to be just beyond (but it isn’t).

Almost into Ollomont, I lay on the picnic bench as a silly gesture but fell asleep quite quickly, using one of my water bottles as a pillow.

Almost into Ollomont, I lay on this picnic bench as a silly gesture but fell asleep quite quickly, using one of my water bottles as a pillow.

There is always time to have a visit with chickens. Sadly, we had a language barrier between us.

There is always time to have a visit with chickens. Sadly, we had a language barrier between us.

We rolled into Ollomont at 10:45 am. I arranged to have a doctor work on my knee and, while waiting my turn, we both had a hot meal. We sat in a warm sunbeam, letting our feet dry out and getting rid of the morning chills. The doctor listened to my complaints about my knee and the treatments I had had at other life bases. Thinking that I would be given the same deep massage, I was shocked when he used his full body weight to quickly crush my knee into my chest. I guess this was an ‘active release’ method that I have heard about. It made me see stars and feel nauseous. Then he proceeded to tape my knee with that fancy muscle tape. With my new knee, we headed out of Ollomont and onto the final section at 12:48 pm on Friday.

After a brutal active release t

After a brutal ‘active release’ treatment, I was taped up and sent on my merry way.

Section 6  – 47.2 km in 22h 25m

Cummulative Total – 283.5 km in 120h 43m (+ 2h 4m in Ollomont LB)

Total Life Base/Rifugio Down Time = 26h 28m

Total sleep = 13h 30m

The saga continues here – Section #7 – Ollomont to Courmayeur

Gressoney-Saint-Jean to Valtournenche – 36.0 km (236.3 km total)

(Click here to go to Section #1 of our 332.3 km TDG adventure)

Section #5 - Gressoney-Saint-Jean to Valtournenche

Section #5 – Gressoney-Saint-Jean to Valtournenche

“Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task.” – William James

When Bruce and I left the Gressoney life base at 19:27, we had less than an hour of daylight left. Somehow we had established an unfortunate pattern of sleeping and spending daylight hours in life bases and always being on the move at night. We hadn’t gone over a pass in daylight since Col Loson in section #2. Out of the 12 passes we had ascended so far, only five had been in daylight and now we were on our way up to Col Pinter which would be our eighth night pass. This pattern could only be blamed on simple bad luck in timing. The endless hours in the dark were taking their toll on me.

I had never run all through a night before this race. I had never had the lack of visual stimuli that night running brings and, since I am very motivated by views and sights, I lost all motivation to move quickly or to see what the next vista had to offer. I was always moving forward but far more slowly now. Bruce was often so far ahead that I could not see his light and he would wait (and wait) for me to catch up.

In this segment, my mind began to wander and play tricks on me. The headlamp over my running cap brim gave the endless sensation of being directly under an overpass and I found myself occasionally looking straight up to see where the overpass would end. I began to see things in my periphery, like Frenchmen trying to hand me flowers but, when I looked over, I would see only wild grasses swaying at the trailside.

As I walked along in the dark, I started to pay attention to the wet shoe prints on the rocks and the way that the tread marks would look a bit like letters and numbers. I remember seeing the number 5 and noting that it was unusual to see such a clear symbol created by shoes and mud. But then I saw a 7. And then another 5. Was that a 3? I thought that I should be writing these numbers down because they could have some significance – like the number of kilometres left or perhaps winning lottery numbers.

I also began to see pictures in the wet shoe prints and I was convinced that these were hieroglyphics which, if I could just figure out the code, would reveal an interesting story or perhaps some tidbit of history. For hours it seemed, I attempted to read these hieroglyphics and eventually I discovered the history of how the Alps were created:

Long, long ago, Italians wanted to create their own beautiful gardens beside their homes but everywhere that they tried to dig, they found only rocks. As the townsfolk got more and more frustrated with the over abundance of rocks, they took their issue to the councils. The town councils listened to the people’s complaints and decided that every Italian should bring their rocks down to the town square. So people everywhere brought carts and wagons filled with rocks to the town square. Soon enough, the Alps were formed from these great mounds which is where we were hiking today.

My hallucinations were vivid and made perfect sense to me in the middle of our fourth night. But, deep in my mind, I knew that I was being ridiculous and that it was all a result of sleep deprivation.

At one point, I caught up to Bruce who had waited patiently (and endlessly) for me to descend an easy, wide, gravel road. I decided to tell him what I had discovered, knowing that he would get a kick out of my silliness. After hearing the collection of my tales, he pulled out the video camera and asked me to repeat my discoveries while he recorded my voice. In a dream-like, fairy voice, I recounted everything about the lottery numbers, the hieroglyphics and the history of the Alps. I also pointed out all the faces I could see in the rocks and I told the stories that went with each face. Realizing the extent of my sleep deprivation, he determined that I needed to sleep – pronto! Saint-Jacques was the next rifugio and, when we arrived at 2:45 am, we asked for a bed. Within seconds of lying down on the upper bunk, I was out cold for two hours.

Upon waking, my initial sensation was complete pain from head to toe, as if my whole body were cramping up and my skin was burning. It soon passed but would return every time I woke from a sleep from here on. One of the medical volunteers noticed my difficulty coming down the stairs with my now seized-up knee and asked about my knee pain. He offered me a pain-killer which I had never heard of but which I accepted without a second thought. Until that point, it hadn’t even occured to me to take pain medication for my knee and now I was taking something unknown from a complete stranger. What would my mother say!?

After that much-needed rest, we began the climb to Col di Nana. Although I have heard that this is a beautiful section of the course, I have no memory of it at all. Here are some pictures taken in this section:

In the famous non-aid station, we were treated to freshly-pulled espresso served properly in real cups as well as shortbread tarts and other delicacies.

In the famous non-aid station on the way to Pinter, we were treated to freshly-pulled espresso served properly in real cups as well as shortbread tarts and other delicacies.

After our sleep in Saint-Jacques, we made it to Rifugio Grand Tournalin just before sunrise.

After our sleep in Saint-Jacques, we made it to Rifugio Grand Tournalin just before sunrise.

It was pretty chilly in those early morning hours!

It was pretty chilly in those early morning hours!

Leaving Rifugio Gran Tournalin, we could see the trail traverse to the pass and many runners making their way in the first sunbeams of the day.

Leaving Rifugio Grand Tournalin, we could see the trail traverse upwards to the pass and many runners making their way along in the first sunbeams of the day.

The Col di Nana and the edge of morning sunlight.

The Col di Nana and the edge of morning sunlight.

We are Just about at the summit of Col di Nana. You can see a summit cairn on the right of Bruce and me on his left side.

We are just about at the summit of Col des Fontaines. You can see a summit cairn on the right of Bruce and me on the left.

One of the few photos in this section where I actually make eye contact. I think this is the summit of Col des Fontaines.

One of the few photos in this section where I actually make eye contact. I think this is the summit of Col des Fontaines.

The Matterhorn (Monte Cervino), slightly shrouded in high cloud,  was visible from this pass.

The Matterhorn (Monte Cervino), on the far right slightly shrouded in high cloud, was visible from this area.

A most picturesque rifugio (that I don't remember at all!)

A most picturesque rifugio (that I don’t remember at all!)

When we arrived at the Valtournenche life base at 10 am, I headed to the medical/massage area right away and eventually got to see a doctor. Again using a deep tissue massage technique, this physio was able to pinpoint the source of my knee pain and recover some range of motion. While waiting for me and my treatment, Bruce indulged in a leg massage which seemed to work out a lot of his aches.

I was able to grab snippets of sleep in between the flashes of painful deep massage.

During my deep massage treatment in Valtournenche LB, I was able to grab snippets of sleep in between the flashes of pain.

Having eaten, replenished our gear and had a bit of down time, we headed out just after noon on Thursday.

Section 5  – 36.0 km in 14h 47m

Cummulative Total – 236.3 km in 96h 14m (+ 2h 4m in Valtournenche LB)

Total Life Base/Rifugio Down Time = 21h 09m

Total sleep = 10h 15m

The saga continues here: Section #6 – Valtournenche to Ollomont

The Happy Wanderer

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