Green grass. Soft green grass. Mmm, looks like a great place for a short nap. Maybe if I just get a little closer….
Suddenly I realized I wasn’t looking at green grass – I was falling headfirst into it on the side of a gravel road. I started gasping for air as my arms flew out, struggling to stop my body from propelling forward. I steadied myself with my poles, straightened my body, and spun around in an uncoordinated pirouette, trying to get a grasp on my surroundings. Where am I and how did I get here? It was the middle of the night and I was confused and alone. I didn’t recognize the street I was standing on. Was I even on course? How long had I been ‘out’? I paused and looked up at silhouette of the 3000 m peaks that surrounded me and wondered which one I had just descended. I had no clue. Ah, I have reached it, I thought, chuckling in an unrecognizable voice. I’m finally at my limit.
I knew I needed to call someone, so I immediately thought of my friend Michael Ormiston, who had come out to see me on the course earlier in the day. He surprised me by coming back at night to run with me down the mountain in the dark and fog, for which I was extremely grateful. I’m not sure I would have wanted to attempt the descent on my own, especially considering how exhausted I was. We chatted about all sorts of things – his thoughts about doing Tor next year, his nutrition strategy, how he wasn’t actually allowed to run with me according to the race rules, how he designed part of the Tor course…. Wait a minute. As I went to dial Michael’s number, I started to get a funny feeling in my stomach. Michael didn’t design the Tor course. That doesn’t make any sense. I tried to concentrate and quiet the ping pong balls bouncing around my head. If Michael ran down the mountain with me, why isn’t he here with me now? It started to sink in that I had imagined it. I had actually managed to sleep-run down a technical mountain trail while talking with an imaginary version of my friend. Oh crap. I’m really f**ked, aren’t I.
It was just after 12am on Thursday morning and I had been running virtually non-stop
since the race started at 10am on Sunday morning. I had almost 300km on my legs and just two hours of sleep in the bank by that point. And I was literally losing my mind. Strangely, the knowledge that I was on the complete brink of collapse made me feel completely calm. It was a place I had been searching for ever since I started ultrarunning almost nine years ago. The place that exists somewhere on the edge of reality where you can’t distinguish up from down. In that place, all expectations, limitations and fears are abandoned and you are completely free to just be. All that exists is your next breath. Your next step. Your next blink. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced such a moment of complete freedom in the midst of such confusion. What should have been a very low moment was surprisingly empowering.
This is Tor des Geants. A 338km non-stop mountain race with 24,000m of climbing through Aosta Valley in Italy. It is hard for me to describe my relationship with this race other than an intense, all-encompassing love affair. If Tor was a man, he’d be that incredibly sexy, mysterious, and dangerous guy you know might end up breaking your heart, but you just can’t help yourself. The kind of guy that makes you forget the passage of time where everything is wrapped in a thick haze of intense lust and mad love. The relationship is fraught with extreme highs and lows, but you know that no matter what happens, you will come out of it forever changed by the experience.
I’ve been completely obsessed with this race for the last two years. In 2015, I battled my way through 282km before the organizers were forced to stop the race short due to dangerous weather conditions (see my race report here and here). I swore I would never do it again. But like any addictive relationship, it only took a few days before I was planning 2016.
In the days leading up to the race, I tried to enjoy my time in Chamonix and Courmayeur with my parents, who were visiting from Canada… but I’m pretty sure I was horrible company. A million questions were floating through my head: had I gotten enough sleep? Would my injuries stay at bay? What if I had an accident mid-race? Will I be able to stay awake this time? Unfortunately for me and my credit card, I attempted to calm my pre-race anxiety with extreme consumerism, buying up any and every bit of gear I could find. *queue hymns of hallelujah coming from Ravanel, Snell and Salomon *
When race day came, I was armed with four pairs of hiking poles in two different sizes, an orgy of Salomon shoes and one orphaned Hoka pair, more outfit changes than I thought I would need in a year let alone a week (I was wrong), and most importantly, eight tubes of Chafex to help prevent the embarrassing running-naked-from-the-waist-down incident of Tor 2015. I had two new head torches, a stomach torch, and I would have bought arm and leg torches if they made them. I might not have felt physically ready, but I looked the part, and that’s half the battle, right?
The race almost ended on day one. Within just a few hours, I was vomiting and dry heaving my way around the course. Before you ask, no, it wasn’t the altitude, nor was it a matter of having gone out too fast (which is inevitable in Tor, but not lethal). Unfortunately, I discovered too late that my electrolyte powder just did not sit well with me, and I was left struggling for calories. I tried to shove food in my mouth any chance I could, but at some point, there was no point. Anytime I tried to chew, it would trigger my gag reflex, leaving me bent over the side of the trail coughing up air with long ugly strands of saliva escaping my mouth. In the life bases (basically trumped up checkpoints placed every 50km in the race), I could almost hear the volunteers whisper ‘that one’s not going to make it‘ as I performed the food-gag-food dance for all to see.
This is where I have to stop and talk about my amazing friend Belinda, who crewed for me throughout the entire race. Belinda brought an intensity to crewing that I’ve never seen her apply in her own racing (which is extensive!). Her standard line was “it’s fine, it’s fine”, and it was this matter-of-fact approach that made me believe it really was. Whether I was trying to convince her that my middle toes were broken (I still don’t have feeling back to this day), complaining about vomiting and dry heaving or shaking uncontrollably for some unknown reason, it was all just fiiiiine. No matter what I needed – a plastic bag to vomit in, new wet wipes for what she affectionately called my ‘poo bag’, or my nasty feet to be dried with her very own shirt – Belinda provided. And it was fine.
We discovered that I could eat foods I didn’t have to chew, like soft avocados, mashed potatoes, and soup. So, fuelled by food fit for a toothless old granny, I made it through the first day and night. Sadly, some very elite runners didn’t make it to the second day. While on the descent from Col Fenetre in the dark – my absolute least favourite descent on the entire course due to the steepness of the terrain and razor-sharp switchbacks – I caught up to Denise Zimmerman. She told me she was dropping and that I looked strong. I blushed like a school nerd who has just gotten praise from a teacher and skipped off into the night, only to then run into Michele Granglia on the next ascent. The running gods are smiling on me!! Michele was a favourite to podium in the race, but also a bit of a star due to his, er, other assets. He was on his way back down the trail, explaining that he had to drop out due to a nasty fall down Col Fenetre. I gave him a hug in a vein attempt to get close to his washboard abs, realizing too late that I was squishing his already cracked ribs * facepalm *. Whatever. It was still awesome. Mainly for me.
The second day I still felt pretty crappy, but I was in good spirits. And how could you not be? For the week of Tor, it is as if the world stops spinning in Aosta Valley and everyone is transfixed with the geants. You are greeted with wide grins, constant applause, and solemn nods of the head at every turn… Everyone knows who you are and what you are attempting to accomplish, and you get mad respect for it. Anytime I felt like I was faltering, a BRAVA! BELLISSIMA! would kiss my ears and give me that boost I needed to keep moving forward. Upon entering a checkpoint in a rifugio in the mountains, I would have one person filling up my water flasks, another pouring me soup (brodo!), and yet one more asking me to sign their t-shirt or poster. They make you feel like a complete rockstar, despite the fact that you’re covered in urine splatter and smell like rotting meat.
At the end of day two, I came into Donnas at 150km and collapsed briefly into my Dad’s arms. This is where I had stopped to sleep in 2015, but this year I had a different strategy. I knew that the period between midnight and 3am was the hardest time to stay awake, so I wanted to push it as close to midnight as I could. I breezed through the life base in just 26 minutes, stopping to eat, brush my teeth, baby wipe, change my clothes, switch from Salomons to Hokas, and put on my head torch before heading out on the trail. I even managed to resist the free massages (I left those to my crew). It was onwards and upwards to Rifugio Coda at 170km for my first sleep.
The section after Donnas is just annoying. You wind up climbing a ton of steps only to descend. And then ascend. It is steep, it is boring, and it is relentless. This is where my midrace paranoia started to set in. As my eyes started to droop, I began to wonder with each step, maybe there IS no next checkpoint… I had expected to reach Sassa ages ago, but no matter how high I climbed, there was no sign of Sassa. All of a sudden I got a text from Belinda: “I can’t find Sassa! I’m so sorry, I won’t be able to make it!” That confirmed it for me. This was some giant conspiracy put on by the race organizers to make us run around in circles in the dark for their own sadistic pleasure. (Watch video below).
Ahem. After I passed Sassa, I bobbed and weaved my way above the tree line towards the starry lights of Rifugio Coda, salivating at the thought of my first nap. When I finally stumbled into the rifugio, I smiled and shouted ‘tutto benne!’ just before inelegantly sinking onto a wooden bench. I mumbled for some brodo and asked to sleep for 80 minutes as soon as I as finished. Having learned a few tricks from last year to calm my heart rate and slow my thinking, as soon as my head the pillow I visualized my Mom’s cooking in front of me… a hot, steaming bowl of seafood stew in a tomato broth… it was working….
“It’s been 80 minutes,” the kind man from the rifugio told me in a way that was both apologetic and forceful. Time to go.
I set off into the night once more, wondering how far 80 minutes of sleep would take me. The plan was to make it another 24 hours and then sleep for 40 minutes, but I had no idea if my body would hold up. And then there was the matter of the never-ending nausea…
I hummed my way along the trail, completely alone and happy to stare at the twinkling lights of the city far away in the distance. In these hours before dawn, I just did whatever the hell I felt like it with complete abandon. Singing aloud completely off key. Farting liberally. Peeing frequently. Fist pumping in the air. There wasn’t a soul around, but I wouldn’t have cared if there was. I felt powerful and confident in a new and strange way, and I didn’t want to censor myself for anyone (even if it would have been socially appropriate to do so). I was awesome just the way I was, farts and all. At rifugio balma before sunrise, I managed to chew some food for the first time in ages, swallowing some tomato pasta down. One of the volunteers caught me talking aloud, coaching myself through each bite as I intermittently put my hand over my mouth to prevent it from coming back out. We both grimaced and then laughed. This was Tor.
After sunrise, I came upon a tiny checkpoint set on a remote part of the trail. Two Italian doctors smiled at me as I approached their meagre display of snacks: a few biscuits, dried apricots, pieces of stale baguette, and olive oil. I surveyed the scene, trying to figure out what my stomach could handle… I was beyond starving and with the smell of muscle breakdown permeating my nostrils, I knew things would fall off the rails at some point if I didn’t get a massive infusion of calories. Without thinking, I filled a plastic cup with olive oil and knocked back 2000 calories in one go. The doctors started nudging each other and pointing. “Tutto bene!!” I said, rubbing my stomach as I reached for the bottle again. With a second glass of olive oil coating my insides, I set off towards the next col, burping like an Italian chef along the way.
From there it was all systems go. I was ready for as many calories as possible, preferably still without requiring chewing. At Champoluc, Belinda had a tub of ice cream waiting for me, thanks to some creative shopping by my parents, along with a can of aerosol whipped cream, just as I requested. Sure, it may have caused my heartrate to spike to inhuman levels and my legs to uncontrollably shake (unbeknownst to me), but I was awake and fuelled. And ready to party?
I was so enthralled with the whipped cream that I decided to carry the can with me on the climb up to rifugio Grand Tourmalin. Every five minutes or so, I would whip out the can, shake it like polaroid picture, and squirt the delicious artificial white plumes of fatty chemicals into my mouth. Elite athlete, right here, I thought as I hiked up the path. The volunteers at the rifugio weren’t sure what to make of this English-speaking, whipped-cream-wielding disaster, who against all odds happened to be running near the top of the field. But they cheered me on my way all the same.
After Grand Tourmalin, I climbed up to the col at 3000m and stopped to breath in the indigo mountain air. There was an impeccably flat rock at the top, just big enough for a fetal-position-sized-Steph. Drunk with exhaustion and sweating cold beads of whipped cream, I was too vulnerable to resist. I set my iPhone for seven minutes and laid down for a quick nap, pretending in my mind that the moon above was really the sun, shining warmth and light on my shivering body….
Time to go again. From then on, my memory gets fuzzier, but there are a few moments that really stand out. Valtournenche was a mess. I tried to sleep, but much to Belinda’s dismay, I popped back out of the cot after only a few minutes. I was in a weird state of complete sleep-deprivation but also restlessness, and I still had a 130 km to go. I wasn’t in the mood to talk, sleep, eat, or maintain any semblance of a positive attitude. I was determined to keep going, but I wasn’t pretending to enjoy it. Bah-humbug. The only logical choice was to go back to singing (badly).
At Rifugio lo Magia before the climb to Cuney, my friends Jose and Corrado from Hotel Croux hiked up at the crack of dawn to meet me with treats, hugs and encouragement. They showered me with salty, liquorice candies and Japanese seaweed crackers, a winning combination that I never would have contemplated in my wildest hallucinations. When I began to crave McDonalds hamburgers, they sourced me crispy McBacons and chicken nuggets in the most unlikely of places. This wouldn’t have been so weird had I not sworn off red meat since the late 1980s. I remember the climb out of Ollomont – I looked down at my legs and saw what looked like blood splatter across my thighs. As I investigated my body for any open wounds, I realized it was bbq sauce – a casualty of aggressive nugget-dunking in my individually-sized sauce containers.
After my sleep-running episode with imaginary Michael, a number of other terrifying revelations washed over me… Michael wasn’t the other person I had conjured up in my head. There was also ‘Chris’ (to be distinguished from Cristian Caselli, who is real and finished in 10th place), who would randomly show up in the night to run with me. Chris kept pushing the pace, which pissed me off but also forced me to run at a pace faster than I would have on my own. Oh yes. Chris was also a figment of my imagination. I think at one stage I was so reliant on Belinda that I began to question my own identity. The question was I Belinda? confused me for a good twenty minutes. Why? I have no idea.
At Bosses, I went down for my third and final nap – this time for 30 minutes – in a dark, warm and quiet space that Belinda had fiercely safeguarded for me. She surrounded me with pizza, warm soup, and coconut water and beat any noisy intruders away with a stick. I laid down, mumbling that I didn’t think I would be able to fall asleep….
“It’s time to wake up. You slept really well for thirty minutes.” Belinda was softly rubbing my back, coaxing me out of a delicious sleep as gently as one could humanly manage. It felt like angels were running their feathered wings over my whole body – I smiled for a second, just before I was hit with a tsunami of pain in my feet and legs, and the realization that I still had another 30km over mountain passes to go. Belinda didn’t tell me at the time, but my feet looked like they were straight out of a world war II history book, plagued with holes and crevices that just shouldn’t be there. I was on codeine by this point, and it was necessary.
“See you in Courmayeur!” Belinda cheered as I left Bosses. It didn’t really register that the
next time I would see her would be at the finish. I didn’t even want to think about the possibility for fear of angering the running gods. Anything could happen at any time, and I couldn’t afford another sleep running episode.
The rain started to come down – hard. I couldn’t balance well enough on one leg to get my waterproof pants on, so I ducked into a cowshed, taking momentary relief from the cold in the heat that was emanating from piles of manure. The trail was a sloppy mess of mud, animal excrement and – at least in my head – sweat from those before me. I stumbled and slid around in the fog, desperate to reach Rifugio Frassati. When I finally came in through the front door, the sun had risen and so had my levels of desperation. How could I be so close to the end and feel so far from finishing? A female volunteer grabbed my face with both hands and smiled. She spoke to me in Italian as she stroked my forehead in the way my mom used to do when I was home sick from school. It made me want to stay for hours, but also get to my actual mom at the finish line at the same time. After just a few minutes, another brodo and some Italian encouragement, I was out the door and on my last climb to Col Malatra.
For days, competitors dream of getting to Col Malatra. It is the last major climb and once you reach the top, you know you’re getting to the finish. I had pictured cresting the top, shouting with joy, and skipping down the other side, all the way to Courmayeur… what actually happened was the complete opposite. As I climbed higher and higher, the rain turned to snow and then snow and ice, and it started to stick on the ground. I was too tired and cold to break my stride, so I left my microspikes in my bag. I was so worried that if I stopped, I would fall off the mountainside right then and there. I had to yell at myself to get through every ten metres, calling out LEFT! RIGHT! LEFT! like an army sergeant. When the path disappeared and all I had in front of me was ropes to get to the top, I started to really get scared. It wouldn’t have been so terrifying if it wasn’t for the sleep deprivation, but at this stage, I had next to no balance, judgment or coordination… and I was scared to death.
I peed my pants as I approached the top of the pass. Just another 30 minutes and you’ll be below the snow line, I thought, wondering if I would get through the descent in the snow and ice on the other side. Warm with urine, I clawed my way to the top, letting out a guttural survival cry when I reached it. I felt inhuman – a compilation of neurons, reflexes and synapses that somehow managed to physically get me to that place, but I couldn’t figure out how.
It wasn’t until the descent from Bertone, just six kilometers from the end, that I started to let myself think of the finish line. Now I knew I was going to make it. Tears welled up in my eyes (and in the eyes of hikers around me, who caught whiff of my unwashed body and urine-soaked pants). Not only was I going to finish Tor des Geants, I was going to place second female and fourteenth overall out of 750ish starters and 450ish finishers.
I did it.
I finished the race in 98 hours 15 minutes… and 27 seconds. Over the four days, I only got a total of 2.5 hours of sleep (plus seven minutes on a rock). Finishing this race was one of the proudest moments of my entire life. It was a journey I got to share with my dearest friends and family, but it was also intensely personal. There are things you discover during Tor that you just can’t describe. You gain insight that cannot be shared, transferred or even spoken – but it can be seen on the faces of those who finish the race.
As I wrote on my facebook page following the race, I felt a deep connection to the other racers, the volunteers, and most importantly my amazing crew on whom I was completely reliant. At some point while continuously moving through space, those rocks underfoot became known to me. Through the chaos, the sleep deprivation, and the whipped cream shenanigans, I let my soul crack open and my vulnerability ooze out. I embraced my power and my strength, and surrendered to my fears. I gave it all I had and I came out with more.
I am hugely and forever indebted to Belinda for being the best crew one could ever hope for. For my parents, who watched me suffer and still cheered me on my way, which I’m sure wasn’t easy. For Michael, the real one and the imagined one, and his rice cakes. For Jose and Corrado from Hotel Croux, for sourcing me crispy McBacons, for guiding my parents through this process, and for making me feel like a local 🙂 For the amazing team at the Bowskill Clinic in London and Francois Fourchet at La Tour in Geneva. For everyone who gave me support throughout and for all of you who may have followed… Thank you!!
I’ve spent the past few weeks catching up on sleep and ice cream (weaning myself off the whipped cream though) and have even sneaked in a couple of races. Now that I live in Geneva (did I mention I moved to Geneva in July??), I’m in the mountains in Chamonix and Courmayeur almost every weekend. Life could not be better. I think I’m actually walking a bit taller now… because I can finally call myself a real geant.
If you are interested in hearing more, please watch my TEDx talk!