Tor Des Géants – Section #3

Cogne to Donnas – 46.6 km (148.7 km total)

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

Cogne to Donnas
Section #3 – Cogne to Donnas

“If you start to feel good during an ultra, don’t worry. You’ll get over it.” – Gene Thibeault

As we wound our way through the streets of Cogne, we were treated to some true Italian-style spectators. They had set up an espresso machine on a table in the street, offering a fresh café and a chocolate to every racer that passed. Our eyes must have lit up at the sight since a good coffee is essential before any all-nighter. As we bumbled through the language barrier and asked for two espresso, we soon found out that one of them had a friend who had travelled to Vancouver once. This fact made us practically part of the family. As place names and dates were exchanged, cameras came out, photos were taken and promises were made to send our photo on to the friend as a remembrance of her Canadian visit all those years ago.

Espresso Stand
Upon leaving Cogne, we enjoyed a delicious roadside caffe.
Our newest friends and supporters were thrilled to meet some real, live Canadians!
Our newest friends and supporters were thrilled to meet some real, live Canadians!

Buoyed by the sheer generosity and genuine interest of these folks, Bruce and I headed up towards the next pass called Fenetre de Champorcher in good spirits. It is amazing how invigorating a solid meal, a sleep and a shot of espresso can be. As we set into the rhythm of climbing, I made a conscious effort to stay in a positive frame of mind. I took note of the improvement in my feet. My blisters weren’t bothering me at all in these shoes. Climbing through the forest wasn’t so bad. The moon would be full tonight and the sky was mostly clear. It was still so warm that I only needed my technical t-shirt. Although I was carrying an entire wardrobe in my pack, all I had needed so far were my arm warmers in the cooler part of the previous night. The weather was ideal. This next section had only one high pass and then we would be treated to 30 km of downhill as we headed to Donnas, the lowest elevation of the entire course.

As soon as we left the streets of town and made our way onto the trail, we had to put on our headlamps again. It honestly felt like we had just taken them off. But by 8:30 pm each night, headlamps were necessary. Once again, with the small radius of my light beam, my memories for the following 10 hours are only of the rocks, dirt and grass immediately in front of me.

This section of trail follows a chain of enormous electrical power poles which go up and over the same pass as the Alta Via No. 2, taking away the feeling of remoteness that we had experienced so far. Just below the pass, Rifugio Sogna sat among the noisily humming towers and was packed to the gills with children helpers (way past their bedtime!). The noise and crowded space motivated us to get back out into the night. The endless switchbacks and unrelenting grade soon eroded my positive outlook. Yet another 5000+ ft climb that took four solid hours in the pitch black of night.

After the summit, we made our way down gravel access roads which made up some of the trail. Although the skies were mainly clear, lit with many stars and the moon, we were treated to the most amazing lightning storm. High above and to the south, endless lightning flashes illuminated the few clouds in the night sky. Every five seconds or so, we could watch another blinding flash but we never heard the accompanying thunder or felt a drop of rain. We joked that someone somewhere was getting hammered by this weather as we stood around in our t-shirts. Bruce took many videos of the storm but I was too tired to appreciate such splendour. I focused on getting down this hill and getting through this night.

Somewhere on the descent from the col to the next refreshment station, my right knee started bothering me. A sharp pain on the inside of my knee felt like an ice pick being driven under my patella. I began favouring my left leg on the big steps that make up the trail and using my trekking poles for extra support. I had this same pain once before on a training run during a long descent but it had worked itself out after a short hour of discomfort. Now I hobbled along at a snail’s pace, wondering when this pain would follow suit.

Once we arrived at the tent aid station in Chardonney, we met up with Pieter (Belgium) and Deb (USA). As we listened to the race gossip about a local front-runner being disqualified for cutting the course, we heard the rain storm begin. After sitting for too long on a cold bench, we all donned our rain gear and headed out together into the rain. Although the rain didn’t last for very long, it created a slick surface on every rock. (Have I mentioned how rocky this course is?) The stone pathways of this urban trail, winding down between villages, through backyards and along the occasional street, were all greasy and slick with rain. For such a long descent, we barely ran at all.

Finally at 6:20 am, we were able to take off our headlamps and begin seeing the world around us. We were on “The Trail From Hell” (so named by some Canadian TDG veterans) which seemed to needlessly wind up, over and around a mud-covered bluff while a direct road lay within view across the river. It would be a great place to do an after-work run but it felt like empty miles to me. Bruce and I were alone again as our little group of four had spread apart over night. The towns and villages and the descent went on and on with the race route taking us through every main street of each town that we neared. Time and time again, I thought that we had arrived at Donnas but, as we left each town’s limits, I realized I was wrong.

I am not fairly portraying the misery that I was in at this point. I hated everything. Yes, my knee hurt and, yes, I was tired but it was far, far more desperate than that. Here is a snippet of my inner dialogue from the past 36 hours:

These mountains are killing me. They are too rocky, too steep, too long. The route is too hard, too far, too gruelling. My knee is so painful and I just want to rest. I have lost all desire to be in this race. I don’t need to do this. This is a waste of time. I want it to stop. This is not what I signed up for. I am here by choice and I choose to not do this anymore.

And I decided that I would drop out upon reaching the Donnas life base. Still on the outskirts of Donnas, I realized that I had really given up. The tears welled up and, as we entered the life base, I could not hold them back anymore. I openly cried as we checked in at the timing table, got our drop bags and sat at a long cafeteria table. I was unable to speak for crying so hard. I was devastated. It was true – I wasn’t strong enough. I hadn’t even made it to the halfway point.

Bruce was part of a few medical studies during the race and had to go to fulfill some testing requirements. Before he left me, he spoke a few, carefully chosen sentences:

You have a plan – eat, drink, sleep. Follow your plan and figure out how to get through this. You wanted to do this. You knew it would be hard.

I sat and wallowed for a good, long time. Although there were familiar faces around me, everyone gave me a wide berth, as if dropping out were contagious. What Bruce had said was all true. I knew this would be hard, but that is a relative term. I also wanted to do this. I remember how disappointed I was when I sat 1300 deep on the wait list. Then I considered the logistics of dropping out:

How would I get back to Courmayeur? Where would I stay? How much would an unexpected hotel stay cost? How would I spend my time?

Unable to think clearly through these obstacles, I simply followed the directions that Bruce had given – eat, drink, sleep. I ordered up a heaping plate of pasta and tomato sauce, found two tins of tuna and poured myself a large plastic cup of red wine. If nothing else, I was going to have a great sleep. When Bruce returned and joined me for dinner, we went through our routines of the two other life bases without much discussion. While eating, we cared for our feet, reloaded our packs and prepared to sleep. We slept for three hours in the upper floor of a huge gymnasium.

Freshly taped feet. Although I had switched shoes 50 km earlier, my blistered feet needed regular care and re-taping throughout the race but those blisters never flared up again.
Freshly taped feet. Although I had switched shoes 50 km earlier, my blistered feet needed regular care and re-taping throughout the race but those blisters never flared up again.

When we woke, we found a few friends in the eating area. When Suzy told me that she was stopping, I cried with her, held her hand and said that I was dropping out, too. But I said that I would drop at Gressoney, the next life base. Saying that out loud was a shock to me. It was the first time I actually entertained the thought of leaving Donnas and continuing the race. Somewhere deep inside, I wanted to get halfway. I wanted to complete my first 100 miler.

Bruce and I put on our packs and headed out at 1:37 pm on Tuesday afternoon.

Section 3  – 46.6 km in 12h 50m

Cummulative Total – 148.7 km in 45h 37m (+6h in Donnas life base)

Total Life Base Time = 11h 15m

Total sleep = 6h

The saga continues here: Section #4 – Donnas to Gressoney

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Along A Path

general lover-of-life, including ultra-running, teaching, enjoying craft brews, being outdoors and living simply

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