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Cogne to Donnas – 46.6 km (148.7 km total)

(Click here to go to Section #1 of our 332.3 km TDG adventure)

Cogne to Donnas

Section #3 – Cogne to Donnas

“If you start to feel good during an ultra, don’t worry. You’ll get over it.” – Gene Thibeault

As we wound our way through the streets of Cogne, we were treated to some true Italian-style spectators. They had set up an espresso machine on a table in the street, offering a fresh café and a chocolate to every racer that passed. Our eyes must have lit up at the sight since a good coffee is essential before any all-nighter. As we bumbled through the language barrier and asked for two espresso, we soon found out that one of them had a friend who had travelled to Vancouver once. This fact made us practically part of the family. As place names and dates were exchanged, cameras came out, photos were taken and promises were made to send our photo on to the friend as a remembrance of her Canadian visit all those years ago.

Upon leaving Cogne, we enjoyed a delicious roadside caffe.

Upon leaving Cogne, we enjoyed a delicious roadside caffe.

 

Our newest friends and supporters were thrilled to meet some real, live Canadians!

Our newest friends and supporters were thrilled to meet some real, live Canadians!

Buoyed by the sheer generosity and genuine interest of these folks, Bruce and I headed up towards the next pass called Fenetre de Champorcher in good spirits. It is amazing how invigorating a solid meal, a sleep and a shot of espresso can be. As we set into the rhythm of climbing, I made a conscious effort to stay in a positive frame of mind. I took note of the improvement in my feet. My blisters weren’t bothering me at all in these shoes. Climbing through the forest wasn’t so bad. The moon would be full tonight and the sky was mostly clear. It was still so warm that I only needed my technical t-shirt. Although I was carrying an entire wardrobe in my pack, all I had needed so far were my arm warmers in the cooler part of the previous night. The weather was ideal. This next section had only one high pass and then we would be treated to 30 km of downhill as we headed to Donnas, the lowest elevation of the entire course.

As soon as we left the streets of town and made our way onto the trail, we had to put on our headlamps again. It honestly felt like we had just taken them off. But by 8:30 pm each night, headlamps were necessary. Once again, with the small radius of my light beam, my memories for the following 10 hours are only of the rocks, dirt and grass immediately in front of me.

This section of trail follows a chain of enormous electrical power poles which go up and over the same pass as the Alta Via No. 2, taking away the feeling of remoteness that we had experienced so far. Just below the pass, Rifugio Sogna sat among the noisily humming towers and was packed to the gills with children helpers (way past their bedtime!). The noise and crowded space motivated us to get back out into the night. The endless switchbacks and unrelenting grade soon eroded my positive outlook. Yet another 5000+ ft climb that took four solid hours in the pitch black of night.

After the summit, we made our way down gravel access roads which made up some of the trail. Although the skies were mainly clear, lit with many stars and the moon, we were treated to the most amazing lightning storm. High above and to the south, endless lightning flashes illuminated the few clouds in the night sky. Every five seconds or so, we could watch another blinding flash but we never heard the accompanying thunder or felt a drop of rain. We joked that someone somewhere was getting hammered by this weather as we stood around in our t-shirts. Bruce took many videos of the storm but I was too tired to appreciate such splendour. I focused on getting down this hill and getting through this night.

Somewhere on the descent from the col to the next refreshment station, my right knee started bothering me. A sharp pain on the inside of my knee felt like an ice pick being driven under my patella. I began favouring my left leg on the big steps that make up the trail and using my trekking poles for extra support. I had this same pain once before on a training run during a long descent but it had worked itself out after a short hour of discomfort. Now I hobbled along at a snail’s pace, wondering when this pain would follow suit.

Once we arrived at the tent aid station in Chardonney, we met up with Pieter (Belgium) and Deb (USA). As we listened to the race gossip about a local front-runner being disqualified for cutting the course, we heard the rain storm begin. After sitting for too long on a cold bench, we all donned our rain gear and headed out together into the rain. Although the rain didn’t last for very long, it created a slick surface on every rock. (Have I mentioned how rocky this course is?) The stone pathways of this urban trail, winding down between villages, through backyards and along the occasional street, were all greasy and slick with rain. For such a long descent, we barely ran at all.

Finally at 6:20 am, we were able to take off our headlamps and begin seeing the world around us. We were on “The Trail From Hell” (so named by some Canadian TDG veterans) which seemed to needlessly wind up, over and around a mud-covered bluff while a direct road lay within view across the river. It would be a great place to do an after-work run but it felt like empty miles to me. Bruce and I were alone again as our little group of four had spread apart over night. The towns and villages and the descent went on and on with the race route taking us through every main street of each town that we neared. Time and time again, I thought that we had arrived at Donnas but, as we left each town’s limits, I realized I was wrong.

I am not fairly portraying the misery that I was in at this point. I hated everything. Yes, my knee hurt and, yes, I was tired but it was far, far more desperate than that. Here is a snippet of my inner dialogue from the past 36 hours:

These mountains are killing me. They are too rocky, too steep, too long. The route is too hard, too far, too gruelling. My knee is so painful and I just want to rest. I have lost all desire to be in this race. I don’t need to do this. This is a waste of time. I want it to stop. This is not what I signed up for. I am here by choice and I choose to not do this anymore.

And I decided that I would drop out upon reaching the Donnas life base. Still on the outskirts of Donnas, I realized that I had really given up. The tears welled up and, as we entered the life base, I could not hold them back anymore. I openly cried as we checked in at the timing table, got our drop bags and sat at a long cafeteria table. I was unable to speak for crying so hard. I was devastated. It was true – I wasn’t strong enough. I hadn’t even made it to the halfway point.

Bruce was part of a few medical studies during the race and had to go to fulfill some testing requirements. Before he left me, he spoke a few, carefully chosen sentences:

You have a plan – eat, drink, sleep. Follow your plan and figure out how to get through this. You wanted to do this. You knew it would be hard.

I sat and wallowed for a good, long time. Although there were familiar faces around me, everyone gave me a wide berth, as if dropping out were contagious. What Bruce had said was all true. I knew this would be hard, but that is a relative term. I also wanted to do this. I remember how disappointed I was when I sat 1300 deep on the wait list. Then I considered the logistics of dropping out:

How would I get back to Courmayeur? Where would I stay? How much would an unexpected hotel stay cost? How would I spend my time?

Unable to think clearly through these obstacles, I simply followed the directions that Bruce had given – eat, drink, sleep. I ordered up a heaping plate of pasta and tomato sauce, found two tins of tuna and poured myself a large plastic cup of red wine. If nothing else, I was going to have a great sleep. When Bruce returned and joined me for dinner, we went through our routines of the two other life bases without much discussion. While eating, we cared for our feet, reloaded our packs and prepared to sleep. We slept for three hours in the upper floor of a huge gymnasium.

Freshly taped feet. Although I had switched shoes 50 km earlier, my blistered feet needed regular care and re-taping throughout the race but those blisters never flared up again.

Freshly taped feet. Although I had switched shoes 50 km earlier, my blistered feet needed regular care and re-taping throughout the race but those blisters never flared up again.

When we woke, we found a few friends in the eating area. When Suzy told me that she was stopping, I cried with her, held her hand and said that I was dropping out, too. But I said that I would drop at Gressoney, the next life base. Saying that out loud was a shock to me. It was the first time I actually entertained the thought of leaving Donnas and continuing the race. Somewhere deep inside, I wanted to get halfway. I wanted to complete my first 100 miler.

Bruce and I put on our packs and headed out at 1:37 pm on Tuesday afternoon.

Section 3  – 46.6 km in 12h 50m

Cummulative Total – 148.7 km in 45h 37m (+6h in Donnas life base)

Total Life Base Time = 11h 15m

Total sleep = 6h

The saga continues here: Section #4 – Donnas to Gressoney

Valgrisenche to Cogne – 53.5 km (102.1 km total)

(Click here to go to Section #1 of our 332.3 km TDG adventure)

Valgrisenche to Cogne

Section #2 – Valgrisenche to Cogne

“May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view.” – Edward Abbey

With headlights on, we began the climb out of Valgrisenche and onto the most intimidating section of the entire route. The two highest passes are in this section, tipping the charts at 3002 m (9850 ft) and 3299 m (10 823 ft) with a 5000 ft drop down to the valley between them. I was glad that these two monsters were early in the event since I would complete them within the first 24 hours and be able to put them out of my mind.

But before I could concern myself with those giants, I had to climb up 1300 m (4000 ft) to get over Col Fenetre – a mere 2850 m (9350 ft) pass with an equally significant descent. Cole Fenentre is a marvelous sight in the daylight, with many unbelievably tight switchbacks through the scree on both the front and the back of the pass.

I borrowed this picture from the Tor Des Geants coffee table book. If you look closely, you can see 3 or 4 runners on the switchbacks.

I borrowed this picture from the Tor Des Geants coffee table book (complete with page seam), since we did this descent in the dark. If you look closely, you can see 3 or 4 runners on the switchbacks.

But at night, everything is different. Instead of awesome views that send me staggering off trail, I was limited to the ten foot radius of my headlamp and the rock surface that it illuminated.

Even though almost 12 hours had passed, we were still part of a long snake of runners, although more spaced out now. Numerous headlamps shining all along a steep climb made the route easier to anticipate than in broad daylight. I could look ahead on the trail to see fifty or more lights making their way up, up, up.

But night has obstacles. Everything is more difficult at night – from finding a nutrition bar to changing headlamp batteries, from maintaining a respectable speed to staying interested in moving forward. The night lasted forever and progress slowed considerably. And, worst of all, there are no photos to show for it. Both Col Fenetre and Col Entrelor were achieved at night and I have very little memory of either one.

I do remember flying down from Col Fenetre when an Italian racer, hot on my heels, hollered out to me, “Look up!”. I slowed and turned my headlamp towards the sky, seeing the almost full moon and thousands of pinpoint stars – a stunning sight. But he said “No! Look up the mountain!”. This time I turned to look up at the string of headlamp lights that were descending from the col – a truly beautiful display of poetry in motion.

Col Entrelor was a truly long and difficult climb. Each step up was so much steeper than the last and the rocks demanded full attention for every footfall. Through the rocky ascent, we could occasionally get a glimpse of a distant red flashing light – like a traffic light. It was so far away at first, never seeming to get closer, and I assumed that it marked the top. It seemed like hours had passed by when we rounded a cliff edge and saw it blinking beside us but the trail continued on past it. Soon we saw another distant red light, not flashing this time. As we wound our way up through the darkness, I tried not to hope that this light indicated the summit for fear of losing my mind. A long while later, we approached that light, signalling that we had arrived at the col.

Dawn arrived at 6:20 am and it was finally light enough to turn off our lights. The descent down from Entrelor had been slow with giant steps down through the rocks. It was during this descent that I realized that those slight hot-spots I felt before Valgrisenche were now blisters – one on each ball of my foot. I would change my shoes at the next life base but first I had to climb up 5000 ft and descend the highest pass of the route. We trekked on and I tried to keep my complaints quiet.

Bruce on his way up Col Loson. The runners behind him and below give some perspective to the steepness of those switchbacks.

Bruce on his way up Col Loson. The runners behind him and on the switchback below give some perspective to the steepness.

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

Col Loson (3299 m)- the high point of the race. It took us 4 hours from Eaux Rousses to the col.

Somewhere on the trek up to Col Loson, I became overwhelmed by the challenge that I had taken on. These mountains were too steep. The rocky trail was narrow, treacherous, dangerous and ugly. The descents hurt. I wasn’t able to sit back and enjoy the incredible views because each footstep required full attention. I began to think that the ‘race’ was a silly endeavour. What reasonable person would organize this? What reasonable person would tough it out and toil through it? What was I doing here, since I am the epitome of a reasonable person? These negative, black thoughts were taking over my mind.

The descent from Col Loson was terribly difficult. My feet were on fire with pain and often I would step on a rock at such an angle that one of the blisters would extend into fresh new territory of my sole. But even without foot issues, the trail surface would be challenging. There were many places where the rocky outcrops that made up the trail surface had risen up perpendicular to the ground, from glaciation I suppose. So the trail was made up of sharp, upturned rock layers with narrow gaps between. Each step, we had to balance on these upturned edges, since the gaps were too narrow for even my tiny feet. Running was out of the question.

By the time we had descended down the scree slope rocks, through the grasslands (still rocky!) and into the pine forests (huge rocky steps with water bars), I was in tears. I was exhausted, in pain and worried that these blisters would mark the end of my race. Every step, it felt as if my soles were sloughing off my feet. Plus, the reality of these unrelenting mountains was hitting me hard. This was no scenic tour. This was all business, all the time.

Cogne life base couldn’t come soon enough. We arrived there at 2:30 pm with a plan to eat and get our first sleep on course. The first thing I did was head to the medical area in hopes of having some blister care but I was told that, this year, foot care was not available! I joined Bruce for a big plate of pasta and, while eating (the worst kind of multi-tasking!), I dealt with my foot issues. The ball of each foot had a big dollar-sized blister that had burst. I carefully washed them and let them air dry, elevated, while we slept.

Racks and racks of drop bags at Cogne Life Base

Racks and racks of drop bags at Cogne Life Base

Upstairs in the sleeping area, there were about 75 cots packed closely together and the room temperature was about 30° C. Most racers were asleep despite the noise of people changing clothes, texting, searching through their bags and moving about the room. There were even photographers taking close-ups of sleepers! We found two side-by-side cots and set the alarm for 3 hours. With earplugs in, I was out instantly.

Upon waking, we found a sunny courtyard  where we reloaded our packs and I doctored my blistered feet as best as I could with 2nd Skin and tape. Thankfully the air-drying and elevation had reduced the swelling. Switching to my La Sportiva Ultra Raptors, my feet felt a lot better right away.

One thing that struck me at Cogne was how quickly Bruce was able to ready himself in a life base for the next segment. While I dealt with my feet, refilled my water and considered my to-do list for the food I’d need, he would be ready, waiting patiently for me to get organized. Experience goes a long, long way!

We left Cogne at 6:45 pm, having spent just over 4 hours at the life base.

Section 2  – 53.5 km in 15h 30m

Cummulative Total – 102.1 km in 28h 30m (+4h 17m in Cogne LB)

Total Life Base Time = 5h 15

Total sleep = 3h

The saga continues here: Section #3 – Cogne to Donnas

The Happy Wanderer

My Paths on Strava

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