Fourteen hours ago, the starting gun went off in Courmayeur, Italy. After at least a year of consideration, months of actively training for it, months of fretting over not training enough, weeks of injury recovery and the last few days of travel, acclimation and final race preparation, Bruce toed the starting line.
Bruce is embarking on his second Tor Des Geants race, a 336 km (208 mile) footrace through the Alps in north-western Italy. In the shadow of Monte Bianco (Mont Blanc), Monte Rosa and the Matterhorn, the famous Alta Via No. 2 trail will lead the 600 or so runners along the south side of the Aosta Valley, up through high mountain passes and down into the deep valleys below. After 100 miles or so, at the far end of the Aosta Valley, the trail changes names to Alta Via No.1 and curves back along the northern side for 100 more miles, sending the runners back to where they began. The race is almost entirely on mountain trails and the total elevation gain is over 24000 meters (79000 feet).
Like other ultra running races, there are regular aid stations along the way, quaintly situated in rifugios (hostels) where you can get food, water, medical attention and moral support. At this race, there are also six life bases, housed in recreation centers or similar, where you can shower, sleep and access a duffel bag of your own gear.
But this race is different from the usual trail running fare that we are used to. After the starting gun, it is completely up to the individual how to budget his time between running, resting and eating. Some runners will run full throttle day and night, pausing only briefly to refuel and for occasional 30 minute cat naps. The winners have completed the course in around 80 hours – that’s a little more than 3 days – having allowed themselves only snippets of sleep along the way.
Other runners approach the race as a catered tour where they run and hike all day long, eat a hot meal, shower and then lie down for a full night’s sleep. With a seven-day time limit on the race, it is possible to do but you better not get too relaxed because the cut off times are strictly enforced and can be difficult to make, especially on the first day.
So far, I bet I have made it sound like I am an expert on the topic of the Tor Des Geants. Perhaps you even thought that I had completed the race myself, or at least made an attempt. Let me tell you that I have never been to this race. This is the second time that I have watched the race unfold from home. Although I am once again crewing from afar, it feels as if I am waiting at each life base, ready to answer whatever demand he may have. Clean socks? Hot drink? Retape the toes? Get out the way? But from here at my computer on the west coast of Canada, I anticipate his every need. From his check-in/check-out times, I can almost read the kind of day he is having. But this second-nature feeling comes from deciding long ago to be an active part of his racing.
I don’t just stand aside and watch as Bruce takes on these unbelievable challenges. I am part of the decision, training and preparation that goes into a successful run. We spend time together on trails, insisting that our after-work run happens despite whatever our work days entailed or the weather. We talk about race day strategies and revisit prior results, weighing out the pros and cons. We rehash old mistakes and come up with mantras to get though tough sections. We go over packing lists and food plans. He includes me in his fears and also in his secret goals. I watch his mood and listen to his plans and try to be the realistic voice. This is the one time in our relationship where I am the rock and he is the bird.
How I would love to surprise him at Cogne, the 100km mark, by being at the life base when he comes through. But the reality is that he will have to depend on the Italian race organisation as his crew. I hope that they will applaud his arrival, make sure that he has everything he needs and then kick him out the door before he gets too comfortable. If I am lucky, he may give me a call from his cell phone (mandatory gear!) and let me know how he is feeling and let me remind him of a few of our mantras.
When you aren’t drinking, EAT! When you aren’t eating, DRINK!
Keep your chin up and look around.
PMA (positive mental attitude)
You paid to be here. Enjoy it!
If you see some wildflowers, think of me – and take another drink.
And hopefully this year, there will be someone at the finish line yelling “Bravo! Bravo!” and even snapping a finish-line photo, unlike last time when there was no one (NO ONE!) around to witness his 2:00 am finish!
PS If you want to see some of his video coverage from the 2010 TDG, go to his blog http://lonerunman.blogspot.ca/
PPS If you want to follow his progress this week, look for racer #728 at www.tordesgeants.it