For Part One of my race report, click here.
Section 4: Donnas to Gressoney-Saint-Jean (148.7km to 200.3km)
I left the bright lights of the life base Donnas in the middle of the night and headed out into the quiet darkness. There were no runners in sight ahead or behind me. I was finally alone to laugh, cry and struggle in blissful solitude. Up until Donnas, I don’t think any of the top 50 runners had stopped to sleep, which meant that we were all pushing the pace (relatively speaking). I knew that once we started taking naps at different times, we would each find our own flow without having to worry about who we were passing and who was passing us. There was something liberating and daunting about knowing that I would have to strategize beyond this point and choose when and where to sleep. Let the leap-frogging begin.
It took a while to get going again after my rest at Donnas – I could hear the guitar strings in my left achilles tendon playing a creaky tune and my knee was whispering in threatening tones – but I eventually started to loosen up again. I ran over a bridge decorated in colourful balloons, which appeared to bob and weave in a cheerful dance under the light of my headtorch. I smiled and cheered myself on. I’m a giant, I’m a giant.
On the climb up to Rifugio Coda, the halfway point in the race, I hit a major brick wall. I found those hours before daylight excruciating. My legs were working, but my eyes were unable to stay open. I started experimenting with various unsuccessful anti-sleep deprivation tactics. I ran with one eye closed, thinking that maybe it would be like putting one eye to sleep at a time… but all that did was take away some of my depth perception. As the sun rose, my eyes drooped further and further. I felt my legs grind to a halt like a wind up toy at the end of its performance. Wake up, wake up, wake up. I started singing out loud to try to keep myself alert. Anything that came on my ipod was fair game, even if I didn’t know the words. I even threw in some instrumentals, which occasionally made me laugh with equal parts panic and delirium. So take me up, take me higher, there’s a world not far from heeeeere…. Bah bah ba-ba-ba bah bah….We light up the wooooorld….
A mist rolled in and I became enveloped in a cold grey cloud, something that I was going to have to get used to for the next few days. I stumbled into Rifugio Coda and went straight to the salty pasta soup to warm up. There was a Turkish runner sitting at one of the other tables whom I had met in the Lavaredo Ultra Trail – he had not yet slept and was stopping for a nap. Having done Tor before, he knew the benefits of sleeping at the rifugios as opposed to the life bases. The mountain huts along the course are quieter than the main checkpoints down in the valleys where the majority of runners tend to stop. Plus, the hosts at the rifugios will always wake you up at whatever time you tell them, whereas you have to fend for yourself or rely on crew in the life bases.
The next 20 km or so consisted of ‘small’ climbs and descents at an altitude hovering on either side of 2000m. At this point, I was really struggling with chafing on my delicate little derriere, which was worrying me to no ‘end’ (butt pun). I was using lots of lubricant to prevent chafing, but it simply wasn’t working. Welts were developing and they were getting worse with every step. To make matters worse, the sleep monsters had caught up to me. One sat on my shoulders while the other grabbed hold of my eyelids, yanking them down to the ground. How on earth am I going to get through this?
As I gingerly picked my way down a slope, I heard the thumping sound of helicopter blades, which were getting louder by the second. Suddenly, a red helicopter appeared in front of me, landing just a few hundred meters away on the valley below, right beside one of the race support tents. The chopper kissed the ground briefly before taking off again in a blur of colour, quickly disappearing behind the next climb. I couldn’t see exactly what was happening, but I knew it had to be a medevac. Okay, maybe I need to stop complaining about my chafing…
At the support tent, I saw American adventure racer Mark and immediately begged him for lube. With one of those knowing grimace-smiles, he apologized and said he didn’t have any on hand. Damn it. One of the Italian volunteers grabbed my arm and looked at me with some concern. “Tutto bene?” I stared back at him through bleary, devil-red eyes and pathetically mumbled, “Vaseline? Er, vaselino? What the heck is the word for vaseline in Italian?” He handed me a cup of coffee with a shrug.
With some additional caffeine and a helicopter-induced perspective check, I sped up on the next section, passing one woman and an Italian man who looked like he had been chiseled right out of the rock on the mountainside. My thoughts were completed dominated by thoughts of a better lube. I was white-knuckling the one bottle I had, which had failed my behind so terribly. And yes, ironically, it was an anal lubricant called ‘Back Door Glide’, which has become very popular amongst ultrarunners in the wake of Hydropel’s demise (NB: Back Door Glide is great for feet, but it will not hold up on your, er, back door on distances over 100 miles!).
I broke down as soon as I got to the next hut. Without even looking the hosts in the eye, I crumbled on the closest bench, dissolving into tears. “What happened? Do you need a medic? Come lie down,” they said. I just shook my head and blurted out “butt chafing.” They looked at me with equal parts sympathy and disapproval for messing up my lube strategy. I was on my own.
Despondent and exhausted, I set off quickly, clutching my defective lube in one hand and a bunch of cookies in the other. I was starting to feel terribly lonely, so I whipped out my camera for an old-fashioned pity party. I just wanted someone to talk to that would understand, and the only person I could think of was me.
I relied on the ultrarunner mantra of relentless forward motion, albeit in a complete zombie-like state of pain and depression. When I got to the next food and water station, I could barely speak. There was a crowd of about 20 or 30 people standing around cheering me in and I tried to smile, but it was difficult to lift my head. I mimed a pair of scissors to the host with my fingers and she promptly brought them out to me as I stood outside by the food table. The crowd watched as I proceeded to cut the built-in underwear out of my
salomon tights. Waves of realization spread over the bystanders as they watched me
pragmatically cut away at my pants. When I reached the back, I passed the scissors to one of the volunteers with a meek eyebrow-raise. I tried to ask for help and strangely only Spanish came out, which I haven’t spoken in over ten years. Luckily, she got the point, and dutifully removed the rest of my underpants from my tights. As she quickly threw them out in the garbage can, I started weeping again. I knew I looked ridiculous, stuffing cheese into my cheeks with tears running down my face, gasping for air, but I couldn’t stop.
Corrado, the owner of my hotel, had warned me that the section from Donnas to Gressoney was the toughest. I felt it. There was nothing particularly technical about it, but I was exhausted and every step felt like a battle to stay awake. I was caught up with the thought that I knew I couldn’t drop out – there was no reason to – but I couldn’t fathom suffering through more days of the same.
I reached Col Lasoney just as the rain started… again. My feet had not been dry since the start of the race and on the descent I could feel the wrinkly skin slide back and forth in my shoe. Is it coming off? Is that a giant blister? Or is that part of my foot? I didn’t dare look – the less I knew, the better. Within a couple of kilometers, I came up to one of the most delightful little huts on the whole course. Four men and women stood outside cheering me along and I heard music playing from inside. “Vaselino???” I blurted out yet again in desperation. They looked at me slightly confused. I pointed to my butt and made a rubbing motion with my hands. “Aaaaah! I see, I see!” said one of the male hosts. He promptly picked up a banana and motioned for me to squish it into a mushy paste to spread on my butt cheeks.
I considered it for a few seconds. Maaaaybe…..?
Luckily, before I shoved a ripe behind down my backside, the female hosts whisked me inside the little cabin where I was transported into my own private concert. Two men in costume were playing the accordion and a tuba. Or was it a trumpet? I could barely see. I tried to delicately explain my issue for the billionth time to a complete stranger and one of them rushed out of the hut, only to return moments later with a pot of homemade lube of some kind. It looked like honey – after the banana suggestion, I wouldn’t have been surprised if it was… But I didn’t care. I was willing to try anything.
I went into the bathroom and started applying this strange honey paste all over my butt crack. “Do you need any help?” they shouted through the door. Yup, that’s right: in Tor des Geants, even strangers will offer to lube your butt crack just to help you get to the finish line. (I declined).
Just a few kilometers before I reached Gressoney, I saw Bill Flanagan up ahead with his camera. Bill and his buddy Ken
Wallace were making a documentary, Peaks and Valleys, about the spirit of ultra and trail running. They had interviewed me before the race and I was one of the runners they decided to follow in the competition. After more than a few minutes of endless narrative about butt chafing (my time to shine, really), I looked directly into the camera and said, “Stephanie, you are doing this ONCE. Bill, if I even think about signing up for this race again, you need to show me this footage. Once, Stephanie, once!”
At the life base at Gressoney, Jose and Corrado were there to welcome me in once more. I’ll leave the more gory details out, but let’s just say that I spent a good few minutes bent over a medical table spreading my butt cheeks for an Italian doctor to inspect while Jose translated the diagnosis. I would have spread my butt cheeks for the Queen at that point if I thought it would help – anyone with an opinion or an idea was welcome to take a look! Thankfully, adventure racer Mark had some extra Chafex on hand to spare and my amazing crew jetted off to the pharmacy for local reinforcement ointments. I changed out of my underwear-less pants and into my running skort and set off around the same time as Jess, who had napped at Gressoney. We marvelled at the fact that we were still upright after 200 very difficult kilometers and got our head torches ready for yet another night of running on the mountains. The days were beginning to blur together…
Section 5: Gressoney to Valtournenche (200.3km to 236.3km)
Mark, Jess and I ended up running together for sections over Col Pinter and down towards Rifugio Crest, although they pulled ahead on the descent. Sleep sleep sleep sleep sleep was the only thing running through my head. I actually stopped at once stage and contemplated curling up next to a rock on the climb up, even though it was freezing and against the race rules (no sleeping outside of rifugios and life bases allowed). I started fantasizing about making signs that I could rest against my body, alerting other runners to wake me as they passed (what was I thinking??). Strangely, at the time, the only flaw I saw in this plan was that I couldn’t write in Italian.
At Rifugio Crest, Jess and Mark stopped to eat and I went straight downstairs for a nap – do not pass GO, do not collect $200.
It was the best one hour sleep of my entire life. I woke up energized and excited to head back out into the night. I wolfed down a plate of pasta and once more requested a pair of scissors – this time, to cut the shorts out from under my running skirt. I giggled along with the hosts as I snipped. It was a risk – the temperature was dropping and I was now naked from the waist down except for a flimsy piece of skirt material covering the top part of my thighs, but I felt I had no choice. It was liberating.
I bounced along through the night, enjoying the rush of cold air underneath and revelling in my new-found energy. However, like much of this race, nothing was for certain and I was brought back to a crawl on the next climb up to Rifugio Grand Tourmalin, as I described in my intro to Part One. The hosts shook their heads and begged me to put on pants, but I couldn’t. I could deal with the cold, but not the butt welts.
I made it to Valtournenche in the morning, where I saw Graham Doke, Jess Baker’s crew.
She had come through about half an hour before me and was definitely faring much better with the sleep deprivation than I was. Graham noticed me fumbling around with my things and kindly offered to help. I was trying to go too fast and didn’t really remember to eat enough… he warned me that I should really take the time to stop and eat properly. and I should have listened harder. I ate some fruit and a yogurt and set off again, under-fuelled and unprepared. Freeballing.
Section 6: Valtournenche to Ollomont (236.3km to Ollomont 283.5km)
I was as close to sleepwalking as I have ever been before when I left Valtournenche. There were three men running in front and I tried to keep up with them, but I was massively struggling. I kept shaking my head back and forth to wake myself up… at each little rifugio, I pounded back three shots of coffee with three sugars in each shot. It didn’t even occur to me that it was food I needed, not caffeine. I used all my tricks from law school for staying awake – I asked the volunteers to poke me in the side of the stomach. I sang songs. I bit my lip so hard it bled. Nothing!!
After Rifugio Barmasse, the course climbed up over 2500m, where it would stay for the majority of the day. The views are supposed to be stunning, but there was nothing to see except for that oppressive grey cloud. By this point, I was on my own again and felt that I was running through an alternate universe populated by sleep-deprived zombies. The fog was all-encompassing and everything was silent. It was extremely disorienting – as if our senses had been taken away from us. Desperation and loneliness descended once more. On the odd occasion I passed a hiker walking in the other direction, I assaulted them with hugs and kisses on both cheeks. Bravissima, they would say, and tell me how many minutes to the next hut. I can’t imagine what I looked or smelled like, but I was so grateful for the human contact and the encouragement from these kind strangers. There was nothing left within me to draw upon. I had to get it from others. You’re not a giant. You’re not a giant. The negative self-talk was taking over…
At Bivouac Reboulaz, I completely collapsed. Jess was leaving the Bivouac just as I was arriving, but I could only shout “SLEEP!” as she waved goodbye. I stumbled into the hut and the waterworks began again (amazing I wasn’t severely dehydrated). “Sleep? SLEEP?” I asked impatiently, not wanting to waste even one minute with polite discussion. One of the lovely volunteers ushered me into the next room with bunk beds and I fell in a heap onto one of the mattresses. “What’s wrong? What happened?” he asked out of concern. There was nothing I could say – nothing was wrong and everything was wrong. I asked to be woken up in an hour. No, an hour and twenty. Okay an hour and fifteen…..
I woke up an hour and ten minutes later shaking uncontrollably from the cold. I don’t think it was actually cold, but I had obviously caught a major chill from running without pants on. My face was so swollen it was hard to see. I shuffled back into the main room where the friendly male volunteer who had tucked me into bed before was drying out my shirt – I hadn’t even remembered taking it off. Another female volunteer escorted me over to sit by the fire and handed me a bowl of soup. The shaking continued.
“Where are your pants?” Mr Male Volunteer asked me kindly. “You need to wear pants – it is freezing outside.”
I explained my situation again and said I couldn’t wear my waterproof pants as they were too form-fitting for my chaffing problem.
“Um, I know,” said Mr Increasingly Gorgeous Male Volunteer, which made me realize I had probably flashed him while getting into bed earlier. “It’s okay. Just take my pants. You can’t run this race without pants on.” Perhaps he was making a good point, I thought.
He grabbed a pair of large men’s waterproof pants and helped me into them. “I can’t thank you enough,” I said in a scratchy voice.
“It’s no problem! Tutto bene.” said Future Husband Volunteer. I was ready to have his babies.
I shuffled on, red-faced from a creeping fever and short of breath until I reached Rifugio Cuney. All I remember was sitting down next to a female volunteer and burying my face into her chest as she tried to feed me chocolate. Another male runner, who was clearly a TDG vet, shoved cheese and salami into my hand and motioned for me to eat. “Kaput!” he said, warning me what would happen if I didn’t get more calories in me. I carried on.
At the final stop before the descent to Oyace, I sat at a wooden table inside the bivouac and forced myself to eat a plate of pasta. Three bites. Two deep breaths. Thirty seconds of crying while resting my head on the table. Two more bites. One more deep breath. I was completely and utterly pathetic. The hosts warned me I had a fever and told me to rest, but I just wanted to push on. Actually I wanted to quit, but I knew I couldn’t, so I just wanted it to be over – fast. One of the other French runners, Didier, looked at me and said “it is not just you – it is difficult for us too you know.” It was the nicest thing he could have said to me. In my desperation, I had become completely narcissistic and thought – subconsciously anyway – that I was the only one suffering. His comment helped snap me out of it. Buck up, Case. No one else is complaining but you.
I started listening to the buzz of the handheld radios that the race volunteers were holding and realized that they had been communicating about me and my fever between huts. It was time to stop acting so broken or I would be in danger of getting pulled out.
I diligently finished my pasta and got ready to go. The volunteers insisted that two men follow behind me up to the Col, just to make sure I was okay. I suddenly became very aware of how heavily I was breathing. I tried to hide the sound of my rapid, jagged breath by zipping up my rain jacket and putting on my hood, which allowed me to breathe into the collar.
Unfortunately, when I reached Oyace, I was told that the race had been stopped – again – due to concerns about the weather. I had missed the cutoff by only a few minutes. Had I been ten minutes faster, I would have been able to continue with Jess, Mark and the others. I was disappointed not to be able to spend the break commiserating with them, but there was nothing I could do. I had to accept that I would now not be able to catch up with them for the rest of the race.
A doctor immediately came over to take my temperature, having obviously been alerted by the volunteers at the previous bivouac. I insisted I was fine, but he wouldn’t let it go. I put up a fight for a good five minutes while lying in my cot before I got rid of him (I was 200% sure I did have a fever, but I didn’t want to give him any excuse to pull me out. I was just a little hot in the head for goodness sake!).
Before going to sleep, I wolfed down almost two full pizzas in an effort to massively refuel. There was nothing I could do about the mandatory stop, so I thought I might as well take advantage of the time to get some energy back. I did not want to make the same mistake I made at Valtournenche, so I ate to the point of near explosion.
After too many hours of sleep, I got up to move around. I was worried that we were getting way too much downtime and that the body would start to think the race was over. It is better to keep the body in ‘go mode’ than to get too much rest. Everything was swelling and I was losing my mojo… I practised running around the hall we were sleeping in, much to the amusement of the volunteers. Just as I was completing my third little jog around the wooden tables, I looked up and saw Jose coming towards me. She and Corrado had decided to spend the night sleeping in their car, just so that they would be there when I woke up. I could not believe it.
We sat around drinking coffee and waiting for the sun to rise. It was hard to relax as we knew I might have to start running again at a moment’s notice…. but we didn’t know how much longer we would be stopped. I laid down on a bench with all of my gear on for a quick nap…
And then suddenly, I heard Jose’s voice. “The race is over,” she said.
My eyes flew open. I blinked a couple of times in an effort to wake up my ears.
“Over? Like over over?” I mumbled.
“It is finished. The weather is too poor to continue. Are you okay?” asked Jose, concerned that I would be crushed…
After 8 months of training, 4 days of racing, and countless internal battles, I wasn’t even going to be able to cross the finish line. I should have been devastated. But I have to be honest: my immediate reaction was to smile and my overwhelming feeling was one of pride and accomplishment.
I came for an epic, soul-destroying and soul-enhancing challenge – and I got one. I finished 270km of a 330 km race. There was no doubt in my mind that I was going to finish by Thursday night, almost a full day ahead of schedule. Sure, I was cheated out of a glorious finish line cry, but I was not cheated out of the race. I got exactly what I needed.
Even before I got back to Courmayeur, I already knew I would sign up for the race again. Despite having cried for large sections of the course… despite swearing on camera I would never enter TDG again… and despite the hell… there was no way I was going to let my TDG story end there. I learned so much on this first attempt and I can’t wait to come back.
In most ultras, I find sources of inner strength I never knew I had. I come out of them feeling stronger and more confident than I did before. However, with Tor, it was the opposite – during the race, I was constantly confronted with my own fragility. Without relying on the kindness of strangers, I would never have made it to 270km. Instead of learning about myself, I learned about others, and that was a true privilege.
This year, I finished 6th female and 44th overall. Next year, I will be back to finish those last 60km. I didn’t run a perfect race – far from it. But I ran straight into the mouth of the wolf as fast and as hard as I could, even if that meant crawling (and crying) at times. I can’t wait to do it again.