Courmayeur to Valgrisenche – 48.6 km (48.6 km total)
This is the first of seven posts describing my experiences during the Tor Des Geants 332.3 km race through the high Alps of the Aosta Valley in Northern Italy in September 2014. My TdG journey really began with this March 2014 post – The Dreaded Wait List . Enjoy! And thanks for stopping by.
“Now bid me run, and I will strive with things impossible.” – Shakespeare, “Julius Caesar”
At 9:15 am, Bruce and I left the hotel, decked out in our race wear and hydration backpacks, having left our non-race suitcases with the concierge. As we walked the three blocks to the start line in the morning sunlight, it felt as if we were in a parade. Already crowds lined the street, waving flags of all different countries. After a quick photo of the sweepers and another of a child with a Canadian flag, we headed into the runners’ corral, swiping our computer-chip bracelets as we entered.
The racers were packed together with an electric energy and a feeling of camaraderie but still the remaining time dragged out and my butterflies increased. There were photography drones, muffled music, cowbells, distant announcements and white noise chatter all around. With 10 seconds to go, we all counted down and the race began at exactly 10:00 am.
The mass of runners shuffled along, packed tightly together, through the now familiar streets of Courmayeur. The streets were thick with cheering crowds who moved along with us, taking short-cuts to the streets below, ringing cowbells and calling out the Italian words of encouragement that I would soon know so well. Bruce filmed us as we ran along and you can hear my giggles of delight as I took it all in. Finally it was starting. Finally I could see if I was ready. Finally.
When we crossed the river, still on city streets, and the road inclined up towards the trailhead, the runners near us walked up this first paved hill. I sighed with relief. I had found my people – people who were not racing; people who were here to soak in the experience. As we reached the bottleneck at the trailhead, there wasn’t an aggressive mash of elbows and trekking poles that I expected but instead a gently assertive merge. Bruce and I stuck together and found our place in the long, long snake of 700 runners winding up through the pine forest towards our first pass, Col d’Arp. The climb was almost 10 km long and we all fell into step, following the shoes in front. There was no jostling for position and no one back here tried to run. The trail had supporters standing at every switchback, bearing cameras, bells and words of encouragement.
The trees began to thin out and soon the open pastures treated us to long-awaited views. The conga line of racers stretched up through the dry, browning grasses and I could finally get a sense of the number of racers involved. A helicopter passed over and circled above us before heading higher to film the real contenders.
The trail widened to a gravel road, narrowed again to single track and the summit came into view, crowded with dozens of supporters. As most runners near us did, we stopped for what I thought would be our only summit selfie together.
This is the point where I expected Bruce to head off down the valley and begin to run his own race. But as I tucked my poles away and settled into the rhythm of downhill running, I caught a glimpse of Bruce filming me from below and, as we neared the first refreshment station, he was still just ahead of me, holding out a jug of water for my bottles.
Farther down this descent, we came into La Thuile, the first town along the route, and the crowds were as thick and as enthusiastic as they had been at the starting line. It was difficult to get to the aid station food tables since the wall of Italian men was more than my 5’3″ frame could raze. But I managed to elbow my way through and get a glimpse of the food I would have to eat for the next week. Dried raisins, apricots and dates, fresh oranges, sausage, cheese, packaged fruit tarts and chocolate were the staples. Unfortunately there was nothing very salty to counter the sweetness of my dextrose drink mix and my endless quantities of sweet lunabars, gels and honey stinger waffles.
We were keen to get away from the mob and head out to the next set of twin passes – Passo Alto and Col de la Crosatie. Since it was early afternoon on Sunday, the next climb was packed with hiking families. It seemed unbelievable to round a corner of a steep, rooty, rocky climb and find a five-year old cheering me on, offering to fill my water bottle from the nearby fountain. If a small child could do this climb, surely I could.
The climb up to Rifugio Deffeyes on the way to Passo Alto was truly stunning. The high pastures provided a rainbow of autumnal colours leading down to the brilliant blue of Lac du Ruitor below. Although the ever-moving parade of runners prevented me from pulling my camera out, I will not forget the golden sunburnt colours, framed by snow-capped peaks on that gorgeous view.
Passo Alto was one of those ‘a-ha’ moments for me where I first began to understand the reality of the terrain here in the high Alps. As we left the gorgeous grasslands near the rifugio, we began our true climb. Here the grasslands gave way to rock. Casting a glance upwards, I could see snippets of the snake of racers scrambling over grey rocky switchbacks. The steepness was such that I had to stop moving so I wouldn’t lose my balance as I craned my neck in the general direction of the pass. We just don’t have mountains like this at home. The steepness is unbelievable. The climbs go on forever and every footstep has to be considered. But all the effort seemed worth it since the views in every direction were beautiful. Looking north, the peak of Monte Bianco would occasionally show itself and looking east, the long glaciers of Gran Paradiso formed a snowy backdrop below a blue sky. This is what motivated me to come here – views like this.
As would become the pattern, the distant pass would suddenly be close and, next thing I knew, we were at the top. From our new vantage point, we looked straight across the valley and could see our next pass, Col de la Crosatie. But first we had to descend about 800 m (2500 ft) to the valley below and re-climb 800 m to that pass. Although those first few downhill switchbacks were too steep to run and the rocky footing was tricky, descending was a real treat. As the trail grade eased, it felt great to swoop back and forth, finally feeling like we were making real forward progress after hours of slow hiking. The trail was still packed with racers but the energy was high and chatter in a variety of languages could be heard throughout the descent.
Col de la Crosatie loomed large in my mind not only because I knew that the steep ascent would have ropes near the top but more importantly because a runner in TDG 2013 slipped to his death while descending the far side. After carefully negotiating the roped section of the ascent and taking our summit selfie in the waning sunlight of that first day, we came across the monument placed in the memory of Yang Yuan. Bruce and I both picked up rocks from the trailside and placed them on top of the monument, taking a moment to consider both the fragility of life and the extremes that we all push by pursuing these goals.
The long descent into Planaval allowed for pensive running bliss as I mulled over Yang Yuan’s untimely death. As we left the rocky steepness, a more gradual descent took us along a meandering stream and through grassy pastures while an almost full moon rose in the pale blue sky of late afternoon. It was a beautiful place to die.
From the quaint town of Planaval and its aid station, we headed up the valley on gentle back roads towards the first life base in Valgrisenche. Daylight was fading and, by the time we left Planaval, we needed our headlamps. The crowds of spectators had dissipated but individuals and pairs still cheered heartily whenever we passed.
We entered the Valgrisenche life base at 9:40 pm and found it packed to the gills with volunteers and racers. I felt confused by the bright lights, noise, crowds and confusing Italian directions I was hearing. It took a while before I had the wits to ask for instructions in French or English. Food this way? Beds that way? Drop bags over there? But, as with most things, the answers revealed themselves eventually and the essentials were always available.
Bruce and I found a partially empty table in the cafeteria area and went to fill our plates with hot pasta, cans of tuna and chunks of parmesan cheese. There was even an automated espresso machine that doled out a decent brew. As we ate, Bruce revealed that he wanted to stick with me for the duration of the race. His Shingles illness this spring had resulted in minimal training and he knew that he wouldn’t be breaking any personal records this year. Besides, we were having fun together, sharing the experience of the TDG. And so it was decided – we would run together for as long as possible.
In my drop bag, I had a long list of all the things I needed to do, to replenish and to consider while in a life base with my own gear. I read through it all, thankful for my forethought and planning. An hour later, as we prepared to head out into the night, I suddenly felt hurried, as if I was running a race.
Despite my best intentions to be thorough, I made a few key errors here. Although I did wash my feet and change my socks, I ignored pre-blister hotspots on the balls of my feet. I also rushed to change into capri tights, leaving my favourite running shorts back in the women’s washroom, never to be seen again. Perhaps it was the new knowledge that I was now racing with Bruce, perhaps it was the congestion and high energy in the life base or perhaps it was the sudden onslaught of familiar faces (Jackie, Nicki, Deb, Suzy) in that station, but I got caught up in the race, hurried through my list and would regret it for days afterwards. At 10:38 pm, we donned our headlamps and headed out into the first night.
Section 1 – 48.6 km in 12h 38m (including 58m in Valgrisenche LB)
Total Life Base Time = 58m
Total Sleep = 0 hours
The saga continues here: Section #2 – Valgrisenche to Cogne