I burst through the doors of Rifugio Grand Tourmalin and surveyed the scene through bleary, sleep-deprived eyes. Two – no three – other runners were seated at long wooden tables drinking tea, trying to warm up. There was a table covered in mountain food just in front of me: a familiar scene of dry biscuits, pre-packaged individual serving pies, dried apricots, cheese and prunes. I started towards the food and then immediately felt the need to sit down. The hosts and volunteers calmly stood in front of the kitchen as they watched me flap around the hut like a fish out of water before I collapsed onto one of the benches in a horizontal heap.
“Twenty minutes!” I mumbled to the hosts, struggling to get the words out of my mouth. “Wake me up in twenty minutes. Maybe twenty-five. No! Twenty! Twenty minutes. Don’t forget. Please.”
“You would be a lot more comfortable if you just slept upstairs in one of the rooms, don’t you think?” asked one of the other runners, who was inside getting warm.
I knew he was right, but I wasn’t willing to admit it. It was around 4am on Wednesday and 230km into the race. I had only gotten about 2.5 hours of sleep total since the start of the race at 10am on Sunday and was practically incoherent, but I had just slept for an hour at Rifugio Crest just a few hours before at the 216km mark. I really didn’t want to waste time by making another stop so soon. If I allowed myself to go for a proper sleep, I might not get up again. No, the bench would do just fine. I tried to let my eyes roll back in my head, slow my breathing, and think of anything warm and comforting that could help lull me to sleep. Eating mom’s cooking. Listening to oldies music at the cottage. Sleeping in my own bed at home in Canada. My heart kept pounding in my chest and my body started to shake with cold. Mom’s cooking. Mom’s cooking. My eyes fluttered open – this wasn’t working. Maybe I needed to have some food.
A bowl of hot, salty pasta soup magically appeared before me. The steam wafted up under my chin, drawing my face in closer and closer to the bowl until my cheek was just an inch above the broth. I closed my eyes again. Mom’s cooking.
“Steph!” My eyes shot open and head snapped up just before I took face bath in my soup. It was Jess Baker, the Aussie runner I’d been leapfrogging with since the start of the race. Jess had just woken up from a sleep and was getting ready to head out again. “You look wrecked,” she said chuckling. “I normally don’t tell people what to do in a race, but you really would feel better if you slept.”
My head soon started bobbing again, closer and closer to the table surface, when Mark Lattanzi blew in through the doors of the hut. “HEY GUYS! OH YOU’RE BOTH HERE! WHAT’S HAPPENING? DID YOU SLEEP?” Mark, an experienced adventure racer from the US, had run with Jess and me in sections. Fresh from a recent 2.5 hour sleep and an Asian Curry dehydrated meal at the previous life base, Mark was on fire. He had also forgotten to take his headphones out, so he was cheerfully screaming at everyone in the hut while music blasted into his ears.
We all shared a laughed about the ridiculousness of the race and Jess and I downed a cup of thick hot chocolate before she shot off into the night around the same time as Mark. I begrudgingly headed upstairs for an hour’s nap. I didn’t want to, but I could barely keep one eye open at a time. One of the hosts covered me in three heavy blankets while I hung my feet off the edge of the bed, refusing to take off my shoes out of a fear that I would never get them on again. Relax the eyes. Slow the breathing. Think of mom’s cooking. Mom’s cooking…..Only 100km to go….
Tor des Geants (Tour of Giants or TDG) is a beast of a race. Competitors have 150 hours to complete 330km and 24000m of vertical climb through Aosta valley in North-West Italy, starting and ending in Courmayeur. Of the 20+ peaks, seven reach above 2800m with the highest climb reaching 3300m (Col Loson).
The course can be divided up into six sections of around 50-60km each, marked by a life base. While some support is provided
at mountain huts along the way, the life bases are where runners have access to their spare gear, hot showers, hot food, and cots to sleep in (the race organizers transport a bag per person from life base to life base throughout the whole race). Crew can provide support only at life bases. Sleeping is allowed at mountain huts, but only for two hours.
Thousands of people enter TDG, but only about 800 competitors are allowed to enter – to allow more would be logistical suicide for the race organizers. It isn’t a pure lottery though. Two spots are guaranteed per country, which is how I made it in: I entered my residence as Gaza, so I got in on a Palestinian spot (thank you to the Italians for recognizing Palestine as a separate country!). My entire year of training and racing was geared towards TDG preparation. To make up for less-than-ideal training conditions in Gaza, I loaded up my schedule with races and a well-timed recce of the first 150 km of the course in August. But I had no idea what would happen. TDG is a serious mountain race for only the most seasoned of trail runners. For years I have eyed the race, but not felt ready to enter. Until this year. I wanted to be a giant. I wanted to test myself against the elements, the endless climbs, the sleep deprivation and the brutal terrain. I wanted to see what it was like to have to strategize of when to sleep and for how long. I wanted to see if I could make it to the end. I knew I could complete 100km, 100 miles, and a 250 km stage race. But I truly didn’t know if I could run 330 km all at once. Only one way to find out.
Section 1: Courmayeur to Valgrisenche (0-49km)
We started the race from Courmayeur at 10am on Sunday morning in the pouring rain with a forecast of more rain and possibly
snow on the high passes. Not an easy way to begin a race that would last for days. I tried not to worry about it, resigning myself to the fact that I would be cold and wet for at least the next 24 hours. As long as I made it through the night, I figured the rest would be manageable from there (at least weather-wise). That was the first and last time I bothered to predict what would happen in the race.
The crowd spread out on the first climb to Col Arp, which helped me start to relax. My body was not feeling particularly peppy, but I tried not to worry as this is usually how I feel for the first couple hours of any race – it takes a while before my legs accept what I ask them to do. The descent into La Thuile was fast and fierce with many competitors cutting off the corners of the switchbacks and bombing straight down the hill. I was a bit perplexed as to why we were sprinting so fast during the first hour or two of a 150 hour race, but that didn’t stop me from following suit. My legs were spinning underneath me and my poles were flailing to the side as they tried to clear the rocks and brush along the trail. I breezed through La Thuile with a few waves to the crowds and started the climb to Rifugio Deffeyes at 2500m, where I had stopped for lunch on my recce the month prior.
At Deffeyes, I was shaking from the damp cold and my legs were starting to cramp up at odd times. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me, but I started to wonder whether I really hadn’t gotten enough recovery time after TDS. I started shoving food in my mouth as quickly as possible, gasping for air as I tried to maul my food like an animal. The longer I stopped, the worse it would get, so I needed to push on. I knew I had a couple of steep climbs in front of me to tackle.
On the final stretch of climb to Passo Alto, my friend Joel Meredith came by looking strong and steady. My body was grinding to a halt. Two or three times I stopped to try to stretch as debilitating cramps took over, transforming me from ultrarunner to tinman. Did I need more salt? What was going on? The descent was steep and technical, which wasn’t great for my jelly legs. Luckily I caught up to Joel for the next climb to Col Crosatie, who gave me a couple of magnesium pills to help with the cramping. Is my race going to be over on day one?? I felt like everything was shutting down. When I compared my times to my recce, I wasn’t any faster, which was doing my head in. On the descent to Planaval, I pass the memorial for Yang Yuan, who died on the course in 2013, and say a silent prayer.
The life base in Valgrisenche was complete chaos. There were people sorting through bags everywhere. Half-naked runners roamed through the halls, cameras flashed, race volunteers yelled out numbers in Italian, and the collective sound of dozens of people eating filled my ears. Otto otto cinque! My race number was recorded as I came through into the life base, greeted by Jose and Corrado, the two amazing owners of Hotel Croux in Courmayeur where I was staying. Each runner is allowed to be assisted by one person and Jose was holding the ticket. I was so relieved and grateful to have someone there – it was immensely touching to have the support of someone whom I’d only met once before! I fumbled around in the hallway with my things, trying to change into dry clothes for the night and sort out my headtorch while Jose filled up my water bottles. Then it was a quick bite of hot food to eat before I was out the door, ready to tackle Section 2 – notoriously known as the most difficult in the whole race. Some people were choosing to sleep at Valgrisenche, but I was starting to really loosen up and find my stride. There was no way I was going to stop so early on in the midst of such a hurricane of activity.
Section 2: Valgrisenche to Cogne (48.6km to 102.1km)
I pushed through the climb to Chalet de l’Epee, where I had stayed for one night during my recce. As soon as I got indoors I
asked for Ivo, the owner. “Papa!” one young man shouted into the kitchen, chuckling. “Someone is here to see you!” Ivo came out and we had a quick conversation in French (the only common language between our English and Italian). It helps to see any familiar face during the Tor, and my brief interaction with Ivo gave me a boost as I headed to Col Fenetre (2854m).
The descent from Col Fenetre is probably the steepest of the Tor. We were enveloped in a thick mist at this point and my headtorch was only illuminating the haze, making it difficult to see the ground beneath me. I had powered up the climb and wanted to keep up the momentum, but I knew the chances of tripping and falling on one of the switchbacks were high and the image of Yang Yuan’s memorial was fresh in my brain. Sure enough, after a few minutes, my foot caught a rock obscured by the mist and I did a faceplant forward onto the rocks. I felt my right shin bang against one of the boulders and a shudder went right up through my spine. I laid there in the dark, a tangle of limbs and poles, until the next runner came by to help pick me up. “Ca va? Just a few more kilometers to the town. Allez.”
I looked down at my shin to see a massive dent in my skin and some blood starting to appear. It hurt like hell, but I was counting on being able to run it off. I had to be able to run it off – it was only day one. At the checkpoint at Rhemes ND, a doctor tried to come clean the wound, but I stubbornly refused. I pulled my sock over the wound to try to apply a bit of compression and carried on. It was freezing and I needed to keep moving. Col Entrelor, the first 3000m climb of the race, was waiting for me.
Joel and Jess were both at Rhemes ND with me and we left all within a few minutes of each other. I was now really getting into my stride and I powered up the climb through the cold thin air, passing quite a few people on the way. The cramping was gone, my leg hurt, but I was feeling as good as possible under the circumstances. Rain turned to snow as I climbed and then the thunder and lightning started. There I was, heading towards a 3000m peak, holding two metal rods in my hands like an idiot. But the quickest way to get out of the weather was to push on and descend the other side, so I kept moving. My breath lit up under the light from my headtorch, obstructing my view, so I tried to breathe out of the side of my mouth. At the top of the Col, I gave my arms a few pinwheel swings to try to get some blood into the fingers to warm them up before descending. It was bad, no doubt, but I have to admit – I felt like a rockstar for pushing through. I ran into the tent at Eaux Rousses cold and wet, but fired up for Col Losson, the highest climb of the Tor at 3299m.
“The race is stopped,” said one of the volunteers as I came into the tent like a wild animal. “Just for now. The weather is bad. Grab some food and head into the hotel. It will be a bit crowded now, but maybe you can find space.” I blinked hard, thinking that it would somehow help to clear the cobwebs from my ears. Stopped?? But I’m on a roll! I was having a difficult time figuring out what was going on.
I entered the hotel and headed downstairs where I found a dozen runners spread out on couches and chairs under their emergency heat blankets. A selection of wet gear was toasting by the fire, giving off a ‘delicate’ aroma around the room. I found a chair near the fireplace and started removing my outer layers. Chunks of ice and packed snow fell off my base layer, signalling to me that my core body temperature needed some work. The hosts of the hotel offered to let me sleep in one of the rooms, but I didn’t know how long we would be stopped for and my priority was to get my clothes dry, so I declined. It was like the hunger games – I hung my things in the tiny free spaces by the fire, but then had to sit there to make sure they didn’t get shoved aside by the incoming runners. Joel arrived soon thereafter and Jess about half an hour later, heading off to one of the rooms for some sleep. I wondered if I had made the right decision by forgoing the chance to rest….
At sunrise, one of the volunteers came in and suddenly announced, “the race is on! Go!” in three different languages. It was a mad dash to collect gear and head out again. I thought at the time that the race organizers would at least have recorded our times, but I found out later that we were all restarting again – the first 80km basically didn’t count and we were all starting off on equal footing with everyone else that had been stuck at the same checkpoint. It was a bit demoralizing when I found out, but I just needed to move on and concentrate on my own race.
I did most of the climb up Col Loson with Jess, which was a lot of fun. She had had a rough night and was rebounding like a champ, stronger than before. We moved our way up through the pack, eventually reaching snow and ice near the top. Someone from the race was starting to cut out stairs in the ice, which was critical. With 40 or 50 odd people ahead of me on the trail, it was already becoming rather treacherous and slippery. I had to dig my poles into the snow on either side of the path and pull
myself up every step, putting a major strain on my arms and shoulders. Luckily, once over the top, the sun had warmed the other side of the mountain and the path was relatively clear. We all enjoyed a beautiful descent to Rifugio Sella, revelling in the first bit of sunlight of the race and soaking up a bit of morning warmth all the way towards Cogne.
Section 3: Cogne to Donnas (102.1km to 148.7km)
I had originally planned to sleep at Cogne, but after the unexpected ‘rest’ at Eaux Rousses, I decided to push on. Jose and Corrado were there to offer encouragement, food and dry clothes – I couldn’t have been happier to see them. Just like in TDS a few weeks before, my bags had been held back in Tel Aviv again, so I didn’t have my usual gear at the start of the race. I had made it through 100km in brand new Salomon shoes that were too small, but it was far
from ideal. Luckily, my suitcase had finally arrived the night before and Jose brought it for me to pick out what I wanted. I knew that the next section to Donnas was not terribly technical and had a long downhill, so I swapped out my Salomon Sense Pros for my Hokas to give my feet some pillow relief. Things were starting to look up. I put on a new compression sock to cover my swelling right shin, gave myself a ‘bath’ of baby wipes, hoovered some food into my mouth and set off.
As I approached Rifugio Sogno di Berdze, I noticed some signs ahead cheering on someone named ‘Stephanie’. It didn’t hit me until I got closer that the signs were for me! During my recce in August, I had stayed at Sogno for a night, and the owners and their friend Cassandro had taken it upon themselves to make a whole series of signs for me leading up to the mountain hut. By the time I got there, I was in tears. It was incredible – a true example of the warmth and kindness of the people in Valle d’Aosta. I couldn’t believe that people who didn’t even know me would go out of their way to encourage me along my journey. With some hugs and a few more tears of gratitude, I headed up to Fenetre di Champorcher and made the long descent down to Chardonney, where Jose and Corrado were waiting with pizza. Pizza!!!
Jess and I left Chardonney together and ran along the trails to Donnas, chatting about work, running, and life in general. We had met briefly in the Gobi March in 2012, but had never really gotten to know each other. It was a nice break to be able to speak with someone in English, although I knew that Jess was feeling stronger than I was at that point. We thought we were around 4th, 5th, or 6th at that point, but it was hard to tell, especially with the mandatory stop. I was craving the rest that awaited me in Donnas, thinking nothing but more pizza, beer, massage and sleep, when Jess cheerfully proclaimed how the race was like a ‘nice day out hiking’. I sputtered and laughed as I encouraged her to pull ahead and aim for third – this was no day hike for me! (Note to future runners: the section from Chardonney to Donnas looks like a downhill, but don’t be fooled! There are some technical climbs and descents and it feels much further than you might expect).
I ended up pulling ahead though on the last stretch into Donnas, trying to gain a bit of distance from the men behind so that I could stop for a pee in the woods. When I reached the life base, there was Jose waiting for me, along with a friend Tiffany Saibil, who had completed Tor a few years before. Pizza, beer, massage and sleep. Pizza, beer, massage and sleep. I brought my pizza and beer over to the physio section and proceeded to try to chat up the poor young masseuse from Rome. “Is it as good for you as it is for me?” I joked as I shoved more pizza in my mouth. No response.
My eyes were so red and swollen that I could barely keep them open. I collected my things and headed upstairs where there were a bunch of cots in a dark room. Jess and I had both planned on sleeping for about two hours, but I was finding it difficult to shut off. Think of mom’s cooking. Being at the cottage in Canada. Sleeping in your own bed…. Fifteen minutes went by and I was still awake. Mom’s cooking. Think of your favourite dish: the tomatoes, the onions, the red wine and chili peppers bubbling away on the stove… think of Mom’s cooking… Before I knew it, my eyes shot open in a panic, terrified that I had overslept. I looked at my iphone: I had slept for 90 minutes. Good enough.
I shuffled back downstairs to see Joel eating a meal and preparing his gear. Another female runner who was just getting ready for sleep told me that Jess had left half an hour earlier. Go for it, Jess, I thought as I packed up my gear and prepared for heading out into darkness yet again. My recce had only gone up to this point before, so it was uncharted territory from there. I was ready for it. I tried to shrug off thoughts that this wasn’t even the halfway point and get excited about moving forward through space alone in my thoughts. Now is where the race REALLY begins….
There is a saying in Italian: in bocca al lupo. The literal translation is “into the mouth of the wolf”, but it means ‘good luck’ (like ‘break a leg’ in English). The appropriate response is crepi al lupo, or “death to the wolf”. For 150km, I had ventured into the wolf of the mouth with success. It was only after this point that I really had to start fighting back. Stay tuned for Part 2: Death to the Wolf.