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or Running the Squamish 50/50

This whole thing started off with an offer I couldn’t refuse. Sometime last November, RD Gary Robbins dropped me an email invitation to return to the Squamish 50 miler this year. It turns out that my top ten finish in the event last year secured me a place in this year’s race at an unbeatable price. Caught off-guard and slightly awe-struck, in that moment of weakness (or was it strength??), I asked if I could register for the longer 50 mile/50 km race combination. Without a second thought, I was on the list of entrants. Nine months later, I was toeing the start line and wondering if a hat and a couple of Gary’s famous finish line hugs would be worth it all.

Day one – 50 miles (80 km); 3500 m (11 000 ft) elevation change

Smiling and feeling pretty good at the start of day #1.

Smiling and feeling pretty good at the start of day #1. (Every race start picture looks the same!)

Heat management was the factor for the day. Temperatures in Squamish had topped out at 37°C (98°F) the day before which had me plenty scared. I decided to take advantage of the early morning coolness and the initial flat section to get ahead of the bell curve but I knew I would have to slow down and be more cautious than last year. After the first 11 km, I was ready to take on the Rigs in Zen climb with vengeance. This climb is so significant although it is easy to overlook when glancing at the course profile. With multiple false summits and rock face scrambling, this 420 m climb took me about 45 minutes. After topping out at the radio towers, I gave myself a mental ‘high-five’, knowing that the course would not take me by surprise this year.

SQ50m course map

SQ50m elevation

The upper elevation profile is snipped from the Squamish 50 mile map on the website. The second profile is from my Strava track of the 50 mile course last year. Those climbs look a little different, don’t they? A new perspective brings on a higher respect for the course.

After leaving the Alice Lake aid station, the sweet Four Lakes trail swept us along effortlessly. But suddenly I felt something on my neck and I noticed the guy in front of me swatting his cap around. Then I felt a sharp pain near my belly button. I slowed down, took off my cap and tried to swat away the buzzing. We were in the thick of a ground wasp swarm and I realized that I had to get out of there! Everyone around was yelling or calling out ‘Wasps!’. I had two wasps in my cap and one under my shirt. Other runners were whipping off their packs and shirts, trying to free the angry insects. Once we were clear of the area, nearby runners took stock, compared wounds and asked if anyone was allergic. With adrenaline pumping from three stings, I had to stop and regroup for a few moments before gathering my wits and carrying on.

Upon reaching the 37 km mark at the Corners aid station, I was treated to some TLC by Bruce.

Having a support crew like Bruce is truly an unfair advantage. His wise words, questions, support, encouragement and instant action on my requests put me far ahead of so many others.

Having a support crew like Bruce is truly an unfair advantage. His wise words, questions, support, encouragement and instant action on my requests put me far ahead of so many others.

He had ridden his bike out to the station, weighed down with homemade turkey/avocado wraps and other tasty distractions. Last year, I set my sights on Quest aid station (#5) as my main refueling center but found that 53 km is really too late to remedy many issues. This time, it was here at Corners (#3) where I took time to really assess myself as Bruce refilled my bottles and reloaded my pack with treats for the big climb of the day. With almost half of the race done, I felt fantastic!

Heading back out onto the trails after Corners, delicious wrap in hand.

Heading back out onto the trails after Corners, delicious wrap in hand (and in mouth!).

At the base of the big Galactic climb, I settled into a strong climbing rhythm, knowing that this 6 km effort would take at least 1 hour 10 min. Although this climb looks intimidating, the grade is forgiving and there are many parts where I was able to run. On fresh legs, this could be a mostly runnable climb (and I’m sure that Dakota ran up it earlier in the day). This is where the heat of the day started to take its toll. We were in the shade of big evergreens all the way up and down Galactic but the air temperature was starting to rise as we neared high noon. For this race, I borrowed Bruce’s old-school hand-crafted bandanna from his early Western States races to keep me cool. With a cloth chamois sewn inside and a secret opening for crushed ice, I was able to beat the heat. I saw others rolling ice into buffs and wrapping either head or neck in the icy turban.

Secret weapon! The circa-2000 bandanna chamois was a game-changer! I barely even noticed the 31°C scorcher day.

Secret weapon! The circa-2000 bandanna chamois was a game-changer! I barely even noticed the 31°C scorcher day.

Without going into detail ad nauseam, I flew downhill and felt good as I arrived at Quest aid station (53 km). On Bruce’s wise advice, I topped up my salts to avoid further leg cramps, washed my feet and changed my socks to offset the hot spots on the balls of my feet. After about 10 minutes, I headed on my way with another turkey/avocado wrap to-go. The next climb was another almost runnable hill called The Climb or Legacy, which riders use to access the black diamond descents like Half Nelson and Angry Midget. The switchbacks go on and on and on so it was important to remember that this would be another 1 hour 15 min grunt. Keeping an eye out for any change of grade, I challenged myself to run/shuffle as often as possible. I passed so many runners with this strategy as they struggled with the heat of direct sunlight or, once again, had underestimated the difficulty of these small bumps on the elevation profile. The most dedicated volunteer was waiting for us at the high point, same place she was last year, directing us down the sweet and steep descent as a reward for our efforts. She truly is an angel of mercy!

As I passed through AS#6 and continued to descend, my mind focused on the next climb, called Bonsai, which I had been dreading for months. Although it barely registers on the course profile, it threads its way up through a recent clear-cut in the intense heat of the afternoon. I was determined to make short work of it and I did just that, finding myself back in the shade of evergreens in no time, working my way to its summit. I arrived at the Farside aid station (#7), feeling strong but my emotional balloon was popped when I heard the time. It was 4:30 pm, 11:00 hours into the race, and that was my secret finish time goal. Since I was still at least 90 minutes away from the finish, there would be no PR for me today. There was no way I could complete the two events in my dream time of 19 hours. I should have known that the heat had forced me to move slower and I wish I’d recognized that I was feeling good and strong because I had reigned in my competitive side. But, at that time, I felt complete disappointment and I headed out onto the last section with a black cloud over my head.

And with that attitude, the wheels started to fall off. I knew that there were two climbs left, each about 125 m high and each needing about 30 minutes to summit. The Fartherside climb went well, as it is shady and gentle, but Mountain of Phlegm chewed me up. I knew that the climb ended at a helicopter pad but I just couldn’t get there. It took frickin’ forever and when I finally got to the lovely volunteer at the heli-pad summit, I sat down and whined for all my worth. As I worried aloud about the elapsed time and the course difficulty and having to do it all over again tomorrow, she replied with sweet words of praise and encouragement. She told me to sit and look around and she reminded me that I only had four km to go. She gave me exactly what I needed to get up and finish. I was still able to run so I used my frustration as fuel to power down those switchback, stairs, paths and roads. I was just able to hold off my tears of disappointment and negativity, realizing that I had to get this run done before I could worry about tomorrow. I set my jaw, clenched my fists and tried to hold my emotions at bay. I must have looked intense and half-crazed since volunteers looked at me warily and gave me very curt directions as I neared the finish.

But as the finish grew near, I could see Cathy C. and John I. taking photos. John M. was smiling just beyond the finish line. Bruce was waiting for me at the edge of the park and ran beside me with the go-pro video running as I entered the chute. I could hear my name over the loud-speaker and I saw Gary reach out with unbridled enthusiasm to be the first to congratulate me with his bear hug as I crossed the line.

Right after my well-earned hug, Gary spotted Bruce and dropped everything to congratulate him on his unbelievable TransPyrenean 850 km race.

Right after my well-earned hug, Gary spotted Bruce and dropped everything to congratulate him on his unbelievable TransPyrenean 850 km race. Our ultra-running community is small and everyone knows about everyone else’s achievements!

It was so difficult, so challenging and now so rewarding. As Gary assessed my lucidity, he asked, “Will you come back to do the 50 km tomorrow?”. And I said yes. I admitted to having second thoughts right up until he asked and I was glad he had forced me to re-commit right away.

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Brent ran his first 50 miler in a stellar time of 11:35 and was able to enjoy a few tasty Howe Sound brews before I joined in the finish line fun.

Bruce and I sat with Brent and Erin on the steps of the bandshell and shared stories of the day. Eventually I limped over to the massage table and met Magic Fingers Paul who set to work on my aching foot arches and crampy quads.

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Meet my new best friend, Magic Fingers Paul. Not only did he fix my tender tootsies, he did so without commenting on the layers of filth he had to touch.

His active release stretches made a world of difference to my throbbing feet and afterwards I was able to saunter around the finish area, re-hydrating and eating a burger, as the sun set. As the chill set in, we packed ourselves off to our campsite and I began the de-griming process and then the reloading of my gear for the following early morning start. Bruce whipped up a ravioli dinner which we enjoyed in the dark with a post-race IPA. I was asleep as soon as I was horizontal.

 

Day 2 – 50 km (31 miles) 2500 m (8500 ft)

At 4:30 am, as I was trying to will my legs into my running shorts, I heard Bruce call out from the picnic table. I peeked my head out of the tent to see that all my race gels and chews had been eaten by raccoons during the night. I had stupidly left a handful of packets out and now I had no fuel to start the day. As we ate breakfast and sipped a delicious mug of home-roasted coffee, the marauding band of four raccoons visited our campsite, even daring to venture under the table while we were sitting there! Luckily this was my only encounter with wildlife all weekend!

Still smiling at the start of day #2

Still smiling at the start of day #2

At the Alice Lake race start, in the early light of day, I was able to find familiar faces in the crowd. There was a strong sense of camaraderie between the 50/50 runners, who were sporting a different style race number than the others, and each of us congratulated the others on finishing yesterday and daring to start this next event. It turns out that only 35 runners (out of 100?) returned for the second part of the 50/50 event. I found the Courtenay/Comox contingent and wished them well just as the starting gun went off.

I won’t (continue to) bore you with a step-by-step account of the 50 km run (since it is the final 30 miles of the 50 miler course) but I will note that once my legs warmed up, they responded well and thankfully the ground wasps slept in. Time flew by with trail chatter and I was heading towards the big Galactic climb in no time flat. As I reached the base of Galactic, I briefly ran with Christine S., a familiar face among the hundreds of strangers. We caught up on each other’s lives and compared stories of friends in common before she turned her retro-blasters on and took off.

As we made our way up the big Galactic climb, Christine took this parting action shot.

As we made our way up the big Galactic climb, Christine took this parting action shot.

After the initial shock of running, I found that I was getting stronger on each climb but becoming more tentative on the descents. My feet were tender and I made every effort to plant each footfall solidly to avoid stubbing toes, moving blisters into new territory or inviting unwanted cramping. I had the royal treatment once again at Quest aid station (23 km) with both Bruce and KiCKiT Katie C. attending to my every need.

Thanks to Katie C for the picture. Sitting on the same bench as yesterday, I was treated to crewing in the style of a Formula 1 pit stop

Thanks to Katie C. for the picture. Sitting on the same bench as yesterday, Bruce and Katie got me recharged in the style of a Formula 1 pit stop

The Legacy Climb felt shorter as I was able to march up, running whenever possible, and pass so many sufferers. My Angel of Mercy volunteer was once again awaiting my arrival at the summit, directing me down the crazy Angry Midget black diamond descent.

As I arrived at the Farside aid station (40 km), I was really concerned about that final climb up Mountain of Phlegm, which had taken so much out of me the previous day. I caught up to Christine at this station and decided to hold onto her shirttails and keep her in my sights for this final section. But as the climb unfolded, I recognized certain corners and junctions and knew exactly what was left. I honestly charged up that piece of nasty and was on my way home in no time.

My final descent into town was a blur of switchbacks and leg turnover. As I approached the Smoke Bluffs stairs, I passed two runners who were gingerly taking them backwards. I hit the pavement and turned on the afterburners, simply wanting this endless race weekend to be over. After crossing under Hwy 99, I heard a train whistle blow and I knew I still had to cross the train tracks. Breaking into a full sprint, I raced that train and I won. There was no way that I was going to stop within 500 m of the finish to watch a freight train pass!

Faster than a freight train!

Faster than a freight train!

As I rounded the final corner, I allowed myself to take in my accomplishment. It was a big challenge and I tackled it well. I raced smart and only allowed myself one small section of self-pity. As I entered the finish line park, Bruce called out “You are the second woman.” but my overloaded brain couldn’t figure out what he meant. As I leaped into Gary’s arms for the second time that weekend, he confirmed what Bruce had said. Only one other woman had completed the 50/50 event so far. He set my new 50/50 Finisher trucker hat atop my head and listened to my raw feedback about the day.

Gary's methods are wise. All the racers remember is 'the hug' but Gary gets the opportunity to hear all their uncensored, untapped feedback which I'm sure he uses to ever-improve his events.

Gary’s methods are wise. All the racers remember is ‘the hug’ but Gary gets the opportunity to hear all their uncensored, untapped feedback which I’m sure he uses to ever-improve his events.

Bruce and I sat and enjoyed the finish line atmosphere, waiting for friends to cross the line, eating as much as my sore mouth could handle and cheering for everyone.

Christine and I finished close together and I was so thankful for her motivation to get out of the Farside aid station.

Christine and I finished close together and I was so thankful for her motivation to get out of the Farside aid station.

Who knew that there was a race between the Marthas today? I snuck a photo with the other Martha's parents since they had

Who knew that there was a race between the Marthas today? I had to  have a photo with the other Martha’s mum since they had my customized sign.

John Murray improved his Squamish 50 km time by more than 45 minutes this year, easily winning the under 20 age group category!

John Murray improved his Squamish 50 km time by more than 45 minutes this year, easily winning the under 20 age group category!

At some point, we heard the announcement that bumped me from 2nd to 3rd place. Adrienne crossed the line after me in the 50 km but had a superb finish in her first 50 miler the day before, making her combined race time faster than mine. There was a brief awards ceremony for the 50/50 finishers. When Gary called me up for my 3rd place award, he said the kindest things about my running history, making it sound like I am full of experience, not just getting old. Admittedly I have done a fair number of ultras, been running them for a big chunk of my adult life and can withstand a lot of adversity but I still have so much to learn and there are so many more places I want to visit on foot.

With a gleam in my eye, I chuckle at his comment about racing in the day when you had to have a map since there were only 8 ribbons used for the entire route. Oh, how things have changed!

With a gleam in my eye, I chuckle at Gary’s comment about racing in the days when you had to have a map since there were only 8 ribbons used for the entire route. Oh, how things have changed!

Podium Finish! With RD Gary Robbins, Adrienne Dundar (2nd), Kaytlyn Gerbin(1st), me (3rd) and RD Geoff Langford

Podium Finish! Here are the women’s 50/50 top three – RD Gary Robbins, Adrienne Dunbar (2nd), Kaytlyn Gerbin(1st), me (3rd) and RD Geoff Langford

I don’t know how I’ll react in November when I receive Gary’s invitation to race in Squamish next August. This race has a draw that I cannot resist – and my favourite colour is green!

The blue cap is for one 50/50 finish. The green is for two finisher and the yellow my other favourite colour) is for three. Hmmmm....

The blue cap is for one 50/50 finish. The green is for two finishes and the yellow (my other favourite colour) is for three. Hmmmm….

 

50 miler Finish Time – 12:15.33

  • 54/197 finishers; 10/50 women; 2/12 W40-49 age group

50 km Finish Time – 8:34.17

  • 148/287 finishers; 44/110 women; 9/32 W40-49 age group

50/50 Finish Time – 20:49.50

  • 12/35 finishers; 3/10 women; 1/3 W40-49 age group

What does it take for a runner to move on to a longer distance? This question has long been one that rattles around in my head. I have blogged about it before (here) but I still don’t have an answer that satisfies. Here is Wikipedia’s definition of Long-distance running:

Long-distance running, or endurance running, is a form of continuous running over distances of at least three kilometres (1.86 miles). Physiologically, it is largely aerobic in nature and requires stamina as well as mental strength.[1]

While some runners break into a sweat at the idea of adding another 8 km to the end of a marathon, others think nothing of jumping from a 50 km to their first 100 miler. What allows one runner to constantly search for bigger challenges while another holds back?

I choose to enter races that my running friends organize or have successfully completed, thinking there is some kind of safety in that. Often I know a few folks out on the course which gives me some reassurance. Slowly, over the years, the distances have increased and my sense of adventure has grown with it. But I am still cautious in my selection of events and in monitoring my readiness for a longer distance, always wanting to read through results and blogs to know exactly what I am getting myself into.

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At C4P 2005, Canadian Club Smart Ass took Ventura County by storm because there was safety in numbers.

Most of us think that the marathon or even the 100 miler is the upper limit of possibility because we are unable to imagine anything beyond. But those distances are only known and accepted because someone broke out of the mold and attempted something unknown with dubious possibility of success. If you dare to do some research, you will find unbelievable events which fill to capacity with people who are able to open their minds to the endless possibilities out there. Once the bar is raised and a new distance is established, the flood gates will open with others wanting to try.

But, even more daunting than increased distances, I am amazed at runners who enter an inaugural race – a race that has neither stood the test of time nor had the wrinkles worked out. What if the water-drop gets put on the wrong mountain top or the distance is measured in nautical miles rather than those regular ones? (Don’t laugh – these things have happened!) A race’s long history is a sort of proof of its do-ability and that the organization has worked out the logistics. But this proof is absent in a first-time event and therefore it is not a race that I would enter.

Recently, Get Out There magazine published an article titled Going Long which featured two humble athletes who thrive on those kinds of races – the ones with no results, no blogs, no history. One of those featured athletes is my own husband.

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Inaugural year of 332km Tor des Geants 2010 – the great unknown in action

Those who read farther than Bruce’s extensive resume were treated to a glimpse into the philosophical thinking behind his leisure pursuit. These inaugural races of ultra-long distances, put on by unknown race directors, often in distant countries are the kinds of boundaries he aims to push. There is a purity in being completely self-reliant and, in some cases, self-sufficient, having to carry all necessary food and supplies or even having to acquire those enroute (in another language). There is also a thrill to being ahead of the curve – competing in an event that the media has not yet sullied as ‘the next great must-do race’. These events are not about the speed-work sessions you did, the number of Strava kudos earned or even the number of training kilometers logged. It is more about being able to filter out the noise and focus solely on the immediate present so that the next mountain pass can be attained. It is a great reminder that the finish line is arbitrary; the journey is everything.

No matter how far we aim to run, our limits are directly linked to restrictions we put on ourselves. If you say “I could never run that far”, then you can’t and you won’t. An open-mind and deep self-knowledge are the tickets needed to go longer.

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The Transpyrenea route follows the GR10 trail from the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic through the French

More Post-TDG Thoughts and Lists

A year after the fact, I am finally posting all the information that I wish I had before I toed the starting line of the Tor Des Géants in 2014. Although I hope that this is useful to someone heading out for the same event, it truly is for my own memory bank and could be helpful when I begin packing for the next adventure. This, partnered with my 7 blog-post account of our journey, keep those memories of the race crystal clear (except, of course, for all the sleep deprivation hallucinations – but that is another story)!

Stuff I Found Helpful /  Stuff I Wish I Had Known:

-shirt/garment sizing is all in men’s sizes but I ordered medium since I thought I was ordering a women’s medium. Being a small woman, I wish I had ordered a men’s extra small. When I wear my finisher jacket, it looks like I borrowed my boyfriend’s rather than earned it myself. Luckily, I was able to trade my participant technical top for an extra small which fits perfectly.

I am wearing a men's medium finisher jacket. It is a superb jacket but it is way too large for me.

I am wearing a men’s medium finisher jacket. It is a superb jacket but it is way too large for me. B is also wearing a men’s medium which is a perfect fit.

-pre-race gear check was an absolute gong show with only four volunteers checking every racer’s pack. We spent about 3 hours waiting in line where we met some amazing people.

Gear Check Line-Up - Socialize with those around you for those three hours! We met Jason and a few other characters who we have kept in touch with since.

Gear Check Line-Up – Socialize with those around you for those three hours! We met Jason and a few other characters who we have kept in touch with since.

-make sure that you have everything on the mandatory gear list and anticipate random controller checks throughout the event. Our friend, Pieter, was randomly checked at approximately 200 km and was lectured for having a wool top, rather than a microfleece top, but luckily was not given a time penalty for this infraction (although I believe that wool is a superior fabric to microfleece and I, myself, was also carrying only wool, which had been approved at the gear check)

After almost three hours, i made it to the gear check table. There were only two gear check stations for all 750 racers and they wanted to see every mandatory item.

After almost three hours, I made it to the gear check table. There were only two gear check stations for all 750 racers and they wanted to see every mandatory item.

-the mountains have a predictable tree line at 2200 m. Above this point, trails are usually open and rocky. If bad weather rolls in, you will be very exposed above this line. Rifugios are often just above the treeline in a basin below the pass.

-refreshment aid stations are far more frequent than what is shown on the main map. I carried two 600ml bottles as well as a 1.5L water bladder in my pack. I removed the bladder in Donnas since water availability was never an issue. But do not drink from streams! There are far too many cows, goats and other livestock around.

-watch the clock in life bases. We spent 7 hours in both Donnas and Gressoney even though we only spent 3 hours sleeping in each. It is very easy to lose track of time in life bases.

-Donnas is a very difficult life base to leave and many racers drop out there. It is the lowest elevation of the route (330m) and the following 17km climb to Rifugio Coda is a tough 1900m ascent (6200ft). Expect to feel terrible in Donnas and anticipate the desire to drop. Develop a plan to get yourself refreshed and out the door. For me, after an emotional meltdown and a few pointed words from my husband, I ate a large, hot meal, drank a lot of both water and wine and slept for three hours. When we woke, I simply went through the routine of getting ready to go with no opportunity to further reflect on abandoning.

-look for and ask the volunteers if there are any unique foods at their aid station. Many volunteers bring their own delicacies and are delighted to share them with you but they may not be out on display or you may overlook them in your rush to move on. We enjoyed chocolate mousse, hunks of parmesan cheese, baked polenta, barbecued pork and a pastry twist called Torteccini di St Vincent. Each of these was a delicious treat after eating the same aid station food over and over (and over)

-write a list of things to do while in a life base. My list included lists of food, pills and drink mixes that I needed to top up each time as well as options for shoes, clothes, etc. When I got severely fatigued, it really helped me to stay focussed and follow my plan. Because of my lists, I never left a life base forgetting something.

Life Base Check List - I had this list in my life base bag and referred to it each time. I never forgot to top up or refill something and it reminded me to think about things like sunburn, chafing and foot care.

Life Base Check List – I had this list in my life base bag and referred to it each time. I never forgot to top up or refill something and it reminded me to think about things like sunburn, chafing and foot care.

-anticipate the desire to drop and write yourself motivating thoughts to avoid a DNF. My list included the names of friends and family who had supported me and who had to sacrifice something in order for me to be there. I carried this reminder note with me the entire race but referred to it only once.

-bring earplugs with you all the time. Rifugios are noisy and sleep minutes are precious. I also carried those eye shades that airlines hand out since some sleep was in mid-day.

Route Markings

Following the historical Alta Via 1 and 2, there was never any question about where to go. The whole route is well-marked with yellow triangles or yellow dots painted on rocks. When the route went through open pastures, it was marked with TDG surveyor flags, although some had been eaten by herds of cows. Within the towns, you need to pay closer attention as the route goes through back alleys and tiny streets but these are also marked with the yellow triangle or the ‘Tor’ markings.

The yellow triangles are painted all along the route. Since there is no shortage of rocks, there are plenty of triangles!

The yellow triangles and arrows are painted all along the route. Since there is no shortage of rocks, there are plenty of triangles!

Typical route flagging

Typical route flagging

Cows have been here!

Cows have been here!

This way to the Tor!

This way to the Tor!

Route Signs - At a trailhead or junction, these route signs were often visible. They never reveal distances but only time. We referred to this as

Route Signs – At a trailhead or junction, these route signs were often posted. They never reveal distances but only time and difficulty (EE being the most difficult!). Initially we laughed and referred to this as “Italian Grandmother Pace” but, towards the end of our journey, we were lucky to reach the next junction before that generous time elapsed. (I love the way the times have been adjusted recently!)

Mandatory Gear and Life Base Bag

Mandatory Gear - These items were with me at all times in my backpack.

Mandatory Gear – These items were with me at all times in my backpack. Label everything with your name! I used everything here except for the water bladder, the wool undershirt, one pair of gloves and the emergency blanket. I even used both headlamps each night- one around my waist for better shadowing. From back to front: Ultimate Directions PB vest (with 2 600ml bottles); 1.5L bladder; instant coffee; eye shades and ear plugs; headlamp batteries; sunscreen; body glide; lip balm; camera batteries; drink mix powder; various food/gels/Nuun; bandages/ID/emergency blanket; wool sweater; capri tights; wool undershirt; rain pants; rain jacket; two pairs gloves; sunglasses; two head lamps; toque; buff; collapsible cup (not shown: UD race belt; La Sportiva Bushido shoes; arm sleeves, camera)

Life Base Gear Bag - This bag met us at six times, at each life base (approx each 50 km).

Life Base Gear Bag – This bag met us at six times, at each life base (approx each 50 km). From back to front: warm coat; socks and underwear; calf sleeves; spare running top; spare microfleece sweater; food/gels/Nuun/drink mix powder/ instant potatoes/energy bars/candy bars; yaktrax (for snow or ice); batteries (headlamp and camera); sunscreen; foot care tape; wet wipes; sunscreen spray; toilet paper; two towels; refills of tape/meds/body glide/ginger candies (not shown: second pair of shoes (La Sportiva Ultra-Raptors); spare insoles; toothbrush)

I never needed the warm coat, the yaktrax, the instant mashed potatoes and most of the drink mix powder (blech!) I did shower once at the Gressoney life base but I did not change my running clothes at all for the six days. I washed my feet and changed my socks at every life base and switched shoes at halfway. It was good to have a warm sweater to put on while at the life base since they were often big, open gymnasiums. Next time (!), I would add sandals/flip-flops to this bag for Life Base wandering.

In my mind, trekking poles are an absolute necessity for the TDG. I taped the 160km of the elevation profile on each pole.

In my mind, trekking poles are an absolute necessity for the TDG. I taped 160km of the elevation profile onto each pole but I never bothered to look there for that info. Make your poles easily identifiable since you often have to leave them outdoors at rifugios and it would be easy to take the wrong pair.

Col Loson - the high point of the race at 3299 m

What I Wore: running cap; tech t-shirt; running bra; capris or shorts; socks; La Sportiva Bushido shoes; suunto altimeter watch; Ultimate Directions belt and PB vest; race number belt; sunglasses

Photos – We each had a camera and we took many photos. Although they are not yet captioned, you can see our entire gallery here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lonerunman/sets/72157647815485339/

For the full story of our TDG trek, click HERE! If you have any questions about my experiences during the TDG event, please comment below. I would be happy to help in anyway possible.

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

(Click here to go to my packing lists , my initial impressions of finishing , or another post-race recap)

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