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