Giraffes and tigers and fish floated below me. The rain had created dark splotches on the ground, and the white spaces left behind formed perfect animal shapes of all land and sea varieties. I knew they weren’t real, but I was deeply confused as to why the elephant was the same size as the dog, and the whale smaller than the cat. It didn’t make sense. I felt dozens of eyes staring back at me silently, which made me desperate not to step on their faces. Tragically, after 75 hours of running, my technical footwork was lacking, and I pictured an animal genocide. I apologized in my head to the animals on whom I was trampling and ignored their vacant stares. Oh the carnage.
People often ask me why I keep coming back to Tor des Geants, a 330km non-stop mountain race with 24000m+ of climb through Aosta Valley in Italy. For many, a race of that distance would be a one-off – something to tick off the bucket list and never do again. I thought that’s what it would be for me too. After I finished UTMB in 2013, I didn’t have a desire to ever return. So why come back to the Tor four times in a row? (See my 2015 part 1/part 2, 2016 and 2017 race reports).
Two weeks before the Tor this year, I was a mess. I had probably put in about a tenth of the training as last year and my mind was stuck somewhere in Kabul. I came out for a week of training over Eid (a Muslim holiday) for some last minute prep, and I fell apart. I was on antibiotics from dealing with a gastro bug for a few weeks and feeling pretty raw. I tried to cover the first 150km of the Tor course in training over 2.5 days, which is a formula that has worked well for me over the past few years… but it just wasn’t working. I felt exhausted and insecure. The weather was gorgeous – couldn’t have been better – but the inside of my head was dark and cloudy. As the sun warmed my skin and the crickets chirped their encouragement from the grassy fields, I openly cried. The tears, unwilling to hide behind the space occupied by my sunglasses, trickled down my cheeks while I ran. Instead of enjoying the moments of solitude in the mountains, I was overcome by loneliness. I ended up cutting the training short at 100km and heading back home. How was I going to do 330km?
For a number of reasons, I thought about dropping out of the Tor. There were about 50 red flags telling me that I shouldn’t be within a 200 mile radius of the start line. However, over the last few years, the Tor has become somewhat of a lodestar for me – it’s the event that helps me make sense of the past year, and provides a reset for the months ahead. I didn’t know what things would look like in its absence, and I realized I wasn’t willing to find out. I knew my body wasn’t going to be ready, so the only thing I could work on was my mind. I committed to run the race with joy, regardless of how I would physically perform. There was no other choice.
“Stephanie? Dai dai dai!” I was bent over my poles sucking in the mountain air – and it was just the first climb. Marina Plavan, with whom I’ve podiumed the last two years, pushed passed me, looking at me quizzically and yelling at me to go on. It was embarrassing to have to take a break after only an hour of the Tor, but that’s just where I was at. I was going to have to get comfortable with this routine. My heart rate was through the roof and my left quad was dancing. I tried to quiet my heaving breaths to avoid detection by the other competitors, but that just made my nostrils flare. I mentally revised my finishing time from Thursday to Friday (start date is Sunday), and smiled at the people lining the path. Run with joy, run with joy.
Over the next few hours, my position continued to drop as I watched my expected checkpoint times increase. In past years, this would have sent me into a panic, but I took it as an opportunity to really relax. Being well down in the field meant that I could take my time and not stress at every little niggle and twitch. I told my crew that the goal was to stay well away from the top five (podium), and I nodded enthusiastically when they told me I was in 18th position. I cruised into Rifugio Deffeyes (25km) apologizing to purple-haired Alessio for arriving late, and stuffed some oranges in my mouth. Twenty minutes later on the next climb, I stopped for a rest on a pointy rock and cracked open a bag of chips. I ate them one by one, licking my fingers and stretching my legs. Runners frantically pushed passed me towards the 2800m pass, singularly focused on summitting as quickly and efficiently as possible. I, on the other hand, allowed myself to be singularly focused on my pringles for at least a few minutes. I had all the time in the world.
The sun started to set as I climbed up Col Crosaties, grabbing the ropes above my head to help pull me up towards the mountain pass. A familiar Italian competitor stepped out of the conga line to the narrow side of the trail, wheezing and clutching his stomach. I knew just what to do. I motioned for him to sit down beside me and pulled out my trusty bag of chips. We sat in silence as I chowed down on my snacks and watched the competitors stream by.
Amy greeted me at Eaux Rosses (80km) on the morning of day two with a steaming, frothy cappuccino and warm chocolate croissant, straight out of the oven. She put them in my cupped hands and they started to glow. Before diving in, I paused, marveling at how the melted chocolate was slightly oozing out of the lattice design on the top of the pastry. I seductively devoured my croissant, sticking my tongue into each crevice while closing my eyes. Everyone around me dissolved and the only thing that was left was me and my croissant. My buttery love. If I had five more minutes alone with it, I probably would have gotten pregnant.
Amy ushered me out of the tent to a space outside where she had laid out my things. After running through the night, I was eager to change my clothes to prepare for the climb up Col Loson at 3300m. I whipped off my shirt and bra, unfazed by the bystanders as Leah fluttered around to try to hide my breasts from view. Within seconds I had whipped off my tights, providing Amy with an unobstructed view of my entire behind. “Are you sure you don’t want to just go inside the hotel to change?” asked Leah, who was being introduced to crewing in the most painful way. Half naked, I gave Leah a look that said yeah right, and grinned cheekily as I flaunted my goods. “Oh this is special,” Leah said while laughing and rolling her eyes.
Col Loson is the highest climb in the Tor. After ascending about 700m, you emerge from a wooded trail and enter into a high-altitude valley. It is one of my favourite sections of the Tor. The scraggly mountains seem to slowly stand to attention, rising in height the more they come into view while runners scan the rocky faces in the hopes of finding the elusive trail to the top. That is when the conversation between me and the mountains really begins. Sometimes they flaunt, other times they tease, and occasionally they chew me up and spit me out. This year, Col Loson beckoned, reaching out with its invisible fingers to guide me up the switchbacks towards the narrow mountain pass. A song came on my ipod that just hit the spot – Welcome Home, Son – and I put it on repeat for the entire climb, swinging my poles to the guitar strums and humming to myself. I barely felt like I was racing. If I could keep this up, it would be smooth sailing….
My runner’s high lasted another few hours until I reached Cogne life base, which marked my first real low point in the race. My left quad had blown, causing me to roll my ankle more than a few times. I didn’t think much of it until the descent from Col Loson and then it really started to hurt. I began compensating as I ran to favour my left leg, which of course had knock-on effects on my knee. I started to panic about whether I would be able to stop the downward injury spiral. I was only 100km through the race – not even a third of the way – and my body was breaking down.
I straddled a bench in the life base, put my head between my legs and let the tears flow. Nothing good ever happens in Cogne – it was where I first tried to drop out the year before. I was determined to enjoy myself this year, and suddenly I found myself in pain and crying. Run with joy… Run with f*&king joy….Whose idiotic idea was this…
A doctor came over to try to ice and tape my ankle and I fussed like a child woken too early from a nap. I started stressing about the amount of time I was wasting and fretted over the passing minutes. Amy saw me boarding the cranky train and put in an order with Leah for emergency gelato. I could see myself and how I was acting, and I wasn’t impressed – I needed to do something. I suggested to Amy that we share a beer and she enthusiastically jumped up to pour some drafts. I only had a couple of sips, but it was symbolic. I was there to have fun. So until I started enjoying myself, I would fake it.
Weirdly, it worked. I bounced up over the next mountain pass and breezed through the rifugios, chatting with the volunteers along the way. My left arm had now gone as I was relying too heavily on my poles to make up for the ankle, knee and quad, which meant that I was comically swinging it back and forth at a right angle like popeye. When I descended into Chardonney (133km), I was greeted by a cast of fuzzy characters, which made me burst into giggles. The glow kept me going all the way to Donnas at 150km, where I unfortunately turned into a fuzzy character of my own: a honey badger.
Normally, I sleep at around the halfway mark – Rifugio Coda at 170km at the top of a mind-numbing 2000m climb. However, with the race starting two hours late this year, I didn’t think I would make it before crashing. You can be disqualified for falling asleep on the trail, so I decided to try to get some rest in Donnas, one of the liveliest and noisiest life bases on the course.
I wasn’t feeling particularly tired – the descent had activated my brain – so I drank two beers in quick succession to help bring on the night fairies. The sleeping room upstairs was like an army barracks: rows of cots set out with carefully folded blankets, just waiting to be sullied by stinky runners. I picked the darkest corner of the room and laid down, focused on trying to get a full 90 minutes of sleep…
Not even 25 minutes later, my eyes flew open to the staccato sounds of someone clearing their throat about ten feet away. “Gegh gegh gegh… cah cah cah gegh gegh gegh.” My eyes bulged with rage and I sat up in bed with a jolt like I was being exorcised. “Cah cah. CAH CAH CAH. Rrrrroagh blergh blergh gegh.” Did he not realize that this was the ultrarunning equivalent of basically taking a crap on someone’s face? I wanted to kill him. Seriously. As a human rights lawyer, I can say that I’ve never had any kind of murderous tendencies…. Until that moment in Donnas. After about 3 hours, or rather what was probably 90 seconds, I packed up my things and stormed out, accepting that I wasn’t going to get my sleep and fuming I had wasted precious minutes preparing.
Drunk on beers and lack of sleep, I stormed to the area where my crew were based, like the honey badger I always knew I was. “RAWR RAWR RAWR!!!” I said some things to my crew with bloodshot eyes, making no secret of my frustration. Get over it, was the message they gave back to me. Bah humbug. I had no idea if I was going to make it up the climb, but I didn’t have time to waste. I put on my racy podcast (nothing like a little risque chat to keep you awake) and headed back out into the night…
Harold had a terrible stomachache and we needed to send out for a doctor, but we weren’t sure we’d be able to get one in such a remote place. The closest doctor was a carriage-ride away down a dusty trail, and there weren’t too many souls nearby. We huddled up in the log cabin where I rubbed his belly, praying for the pain would subside on its own….
I shook my head and grabbed my stomach, overcome by a sudden cramp. Who the hell was Harold??? I looked in front of me and behind – no sign of anyone. And certainly no log cabin. Scenes from Little House on the Prairie floated behind my eyes as I started to come out of the fog. Am I Harold?? I ducked behind a tree while I questioned my self-identity, digging a little hole with a nearby rock to leave behind a deposit of fermented Crispy McBacons and Chicken McNuggets (sorry environment). I said a quiet thank you for the cramps, which was what clearly brought me out of my moving slumber, and shuffled onwards.
The rain began to pour down as I struggled towards Ollomont at around 290 km. I felt like I was running on a bed of searing hot knives. I recognized this feeling – it is a type of pain I have only ever gotten during the Tor. I knew that my feet would barely have a scratch or blister on them, but they felt like they had been stripped of all of their skin and flesh for that matter. I pictured bloody pulp sloshing around in my shoes, but I knew that all I would find were almost perfect feet. I thought about foot whipping – a recognized torture technique meant to cause real pain, rather than actual injury – and acknowledged its evil genius. Sometimes my running life and my professional life as a human rights monitor overlap (groan).
I had genuinely been enjoying myself up until then. Once I shook the honey badger, I bounced around the valley eating more food than I ever dreamed my bowels could carry. I chatted with the volunteers and enjoyed running alongside the Tot Dret runners, who began their 130km race at Gressoney (the 200km mark for Tor runners). When my legs started to swell, I cut out all salty soup and sweet tea from my ‘diet’, enjoying watching the scientific experiment that was my body. But I crashed hard at Ollomont. The pain was overwhelming and I was in an emotional hole. After 40 minutes of sleep, I begged for ten more, and when I finally stood up I was disoriented and confused. I felt an intense sense of isolation, despite being surrounded by friends, and I shook with sobs. I was desperate for someone to wave a magic wand and make me feel better – in my legs and feet and in my heart. It is hard to describe the state I was in… not much rhyme or reason for it, but it was intense. I wanted the world to stop spinning and I craved someone to comfort me. But I knew the only thing to do was to keep going. I left the life base with tears streaming down my face and headed back into the night. And the world became quiet again.
“It’s not easy…. It’s not eeeeeassssy, it’s not easy, running Tor des Geants”. I was hopping down the mountain, grabbing on to the ropes for stability with a wad of pizza stored in my cheek like a chipmunk, while singing off-key to an X-Ambassadors song (with a few word changes). It was hard to fathom how I could be having so much fun while being so tired and in so much pain, but I was. I chatted on the phone with my family to keep me awake, listened to more podcasts (of the racy and non-racy variety), ate, drank, sang… I kept waiting for disaster, and it just wasn’t coming. When I came into Bosses just 30-ish km from the finish, my crew informed me that I was really catching up on third place and suggested that perhaps I should make a push for it.
I probably forgot to leave out that part. Despite having the slowest first day that I’ve ever had on the course (in racing and in training), somewhere at the end of day two I started to really climb up the ranks. From 9th to 8th… to 6th… and then somewhere after Rifugio Cuney, I rolled into 4th. As it turns out, my chip-eating and lounging technique had actually made me faster than anyone expected (especially me).
I made a firm decision at Bosses that I was going to take a very relaxed approach to the end of my race. The last two years, I have had a horrific time on the last climb up Malatra, slogging it through rain and snow and extreme sleep deprivation. Last year, I think I traumatized myself and those around me with the state of my swollen body (and screwed up mind). I was determined this year to run with joy and celebrate finishing this amazing race in another podium spot. I had an over four hour lead on the fifth place woman, so no need to rush. I was going to get my money’s worth. I went down for a quick nap, ate some food, and went for my final dance on the mountain.
I crossed the finish line in 98:17, just two minutes shy of my 2016 time in which I placed 2nd. I was ecstatic. I felt like something had been missing in my running since last year’s Tor, and I found it there, in that moment. I was back.
So I come back to the question I posed at the beginning. Why do this damn race year after year? What is it that prevents me from putting this race to bed? I told my family that if I had a good race this year, I would stop. But we all know that was a lie. I can’t wait to line up again next year.
The magic of the Tor is that it is a different race every time you run it. It might be the same course, but your experience running it will never be the same. You simply cannot account for all of the variables that could affect your race, from the weather to your changing emotional state to the way your body reacts from 70-150 hours of continuous movement over mountain passes. You might think you’re having one kind of race on Sunday, but on Wednesday everything has changed. To succeed at the Tor, you must constantly revise your idea of what success looks like. That is why I love it – nothing is certain and the only thing you can hope to control is your resolve to get to the finish. As your body disintegrates, your desire to finish must remain steadfast or a DNF is all but guaranteed.
I’m so grateful for my family, friends, CREW and chafex for getting me through this race. For dealing with the tears, the weird food demands, the stinky clothes, the honey badger moments and the multiple nights they had to spend in cars. I hung on to the moments with them at checkpoints and looked forward to seeing their smiling faces (and fuzzy costumes) for hours. And I’m immensely grateful to the TOR – for making Free to Run a charity partner, for creating this crazy, life-changing race and for attracting the best volunteers that a race could offer.
Once more, I’m proud to say I’m a GIANT. See you next year 🙂