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Ollomont to Courmayeur – 48.8 km (332.3 km total)

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

Section #7 - Ollomont to Courmayeur

Section #7 – Ollomont to Courmayeur

“Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

One thing that struck me during the next climb, up to Col Champillon, was a comment that Bruce had made several days earlier in section #2. He had said that he admired the way that the Italian people embraced the outdoors. When we arrived at the rifugio nestled just below the Champillon pass around lunch time, we found it packed to the rafters with families who were out for a day hike. The Italian people, both young and old, adore their mountains and spend their spare time exploring them, enjoying the beauty of their country. As they watched us refuel before heading up the trail, their comments were only supportive and encouraging. There was no sentiment of “You are crazy” or “I could never do that” among these folks; none of the sentiments of disbelief that usually greet us at home. Instead they were proud that their mountains were being scaled by an international crowd. I was suddenly aware at the relief I felt at not having to justify my love of the mountains. Here, this pursuit was normal.

As we began to descend, my knee felt great for the first few switchbacks. But, all of a sudden, the knife pain to which I had become accustomed was now on the other side of my patella. The fancy blue taping that had been applied in Ollomont was overcorrecting my knee and causing new and more excruciating pain on the outside of my kneecap. I stopped a few switchbacks later and ripped off all the blue tape, balled it up and stuffed it up my pant leg. The pain was still extreme, bringing tears to my eyes. At one point, I told Bruce that these tears were not to garner sympathy. These tears were because my pain was at 9 out of 10.

After the long, steep descent and huge, rocky steps eased, we dropped down to a rifugio and could finally see the dual accordions that we had been hearing during the descent. As well as the regular aid station grub and delightful tunes, they had an enormous cauldron of polenta cooking over a fire and, when we showed interest in their traditional foods and cooking methods, they offered us some grilled, salted meat that was perhaps the most delicious food of the whole course.

Using the offical polenta paddle, bruce stirs up a tasty brew - and earns us the tastiest morsel of meat we have ever savoured!

Using the offical polenta paddle, Bruce stirs up a tasty brew – and earns us the tastiest morsel of meat we have ever savoured!

After that rifugio, we travelled down a gentle dual track that reminded me of a cross-country ski trail. With the big steps behind us, I was able to shuffle along the downhills most of the way to St Rhemy En Bosses. As we rounded the corner to the aid station, the entire town seemed to be out, ringing cowbells and calling out. Bruce played it up and encouraged them to make more noise which they readily did.

Everyone in Saint Rhemy En Bosses came out to welcome us into town!

Everyone in Saint Rhemy En Bosses came out to welcome us into town!

We made our way to the seating area and dove into plates of pasta. One English-speaking volunteer sat with us and told us all about his honeymoon in Canada. He had travelled across the whole country, including Baffin Island, and obviously had fond memories of it. He was eager to practice his English and share Canadian place names and memories as well as information about his town and his involvement in the TDG.

While we were eating, a news team from the National TV station had arrived at the aid station and were giving a live feed about the TDG. All of a sudden, Bruce and I were being shuffled out of the food tent and onto the street where we were briefly interviewed about the race. In our combined broken French, we managed to communicate that we were celebrating our 20th wedding anniversary at the TDG and, with that, the newscaster signed off for the night. It was apparently a big deal for the small town of St Rhemy En Bosses (pop’n >400) to get featured on the national news so we were instant stars back inside the food tent.

(Here is a link to the RAI TV video clip. The race is featured from minute 9:25 to 19:20. Our snippet is at 18:50)

We grabbed two cots in the main building for a two-hour snooze before the final ascent of the course. We were woken by the arrival of a large group of runners and their noisy supporters. Suddenly, the rifugio was filling up so we grabbed our packs and headed out. We figured that this big group of runners were trying to stay ahead of the cut-off times and we were about two hours ahead of them. Our cut-off time cushion was becoming a little tight. We headed out into the darkness at 11:00pm

We continued travelling along a city road and were almost run down by a familiar mini-van of crew, speeding along the otherwise empty streets. The road became gravel and we chattered away as we hiked. Suddenly Bruce stopped and asked when I had seen the last trail flag since it has been a while since he noticed one. For the first time in the race, we had gone off course. After some discussion, we turned around and headed back down the road for about 10 minutes before we found our missed turn. At that point, the markers had been placed on both sides of the gravel road, making the sharp right turn less noticeable.

Back on course, we wound our way gently up the hill-side. This was not a difficult climb. We skirted back and forth across a river and climbed up through cow pastures for hours. We seemed to leap-frog a gravel access road as it switchbacked up the slope. Finally we arrived at rifugio Frassati around 1:30 am. It was an absolute haven – sleepy, warm and peaceful. There were many empty tables and a roaring wood-burning stove in the center of the room. Runners were quietly eating, rummaging through their packs or heading up to the sleeping loft. We took over a table and Bruce instantly lay down to grab a 30 minute nap. I had soup and tea and briefly chatted with an Italian woman who was making a film about the race.

Having a quick nap at Rifugio Frassati before our final mountain pass.

Having a quick nap at Rifugio Frassati before our final mountain pass.

Feeling refreshed, we bundled ourselves up in most of our gear and headed out of the rifugio, ready to climb those final 400 m to Col Malatra. As we left the building, we both stared, disbelieving, at a mountain biker who was heading out on the same trail as us. Who mountain bikes at 3:00am? On trails like these?

The climb up to Col Malatra was only steep at the very end and, in the complete dark, it didn’t seem very treacherous. Suddenly, there were metal steps in the rock face and a rope leading up. A few steps later, we were at the pass. Two volunteers were there to guide us up the rock face, through the magnificent rock cleft and down to the other side of the narrowing. With wind whipping the dust up into the air, we stopped for a brief kiss and headed down. It was about 4:30 am.

Upon reaching the metal steps of Col Malatra, a volunteer's hand appeared to help me up to the rock cleft.

Upon reaching the metal steps of Col Malatra, a volunteer’s hand appeared to help me up to the rock cleft.

Once again, the downhill was difficult but at least this was the last downhill. As was the usual case, the initial steepness of the descent quickly eased and the slope became more runnable (for those without intense knee pain!).  Bruce insisted that I lead the way so we went at my excruciatingly slow pace and he became very cold. At one point, I sat down to get a nutrition bar out of my bag, lay back and looked up at the thousands of stars. It was another spectacular, crystal clear night but Bruce’s chattering teeth were rattling in my ear so we moved along. Rifugio Bonati came into view seconds later and we headed in to warm up. Our stay was relatively brief, just long enough to have some tea and a 15 minute snooze. Being a fully-booked rifugio with paying guests, we runners were kept in a fenced-off section of the main dining area. The rifugio staff were beginning to prepare breakfast for the waking guests as we left.

As we headed out, the sky had lightened enough to forgo the headlamps although sunrise was still a few hours away. The route from Bonatti to Bertone was wonderful. Not only was the trail forgiving underfoot and undulating as it traversed the side of the mountain, we were treated to the most spectacular sunrise I have ever witnessed. The first rays of sun illuminated the top of Monte Bianco with an unearthly pink, immediately making me feel warmer.

First photo of the unbelievable Alpenglow on Monte Bianco at about 6:40 am

First photo of the unbelievable Alpenglow on Monte Bianco at about 6:40 am

For the next hour, we watched the glow on the mountain increase and become evermore radiant. It would have been easy to sit back and watch this display, and perhaps we would have at any other point in the race, but with the finish line truly in our grasp, we pressed on.

It just got more and more beautiful as we got closer.

It just got more and more beautiful as we got closer.

Rifugio Bertone was a mere formality. Bruce and I had hiked up to this spot in the week before the race so I knew what to expect from here on in. It wasn’t easy by any stretch – nature’s version of a rock staircase for a little less than an hour – but there were friendly, early morning hikers the whole way who encouraged us along. Passing familiar landmarks, like the road crossing and the bridge, were thrilling. As our feet finally struck the pavement at the edge of town, we burst into a run and prepared ourselves to soak in the long-awaited moment.

Finishing the Tor Des Geants together.

Finishing the Tor Des Geants together.

Captured from the live feed of the finish line (thanks Steve and Wade), the finish line kiss makes it official.

Captured from the live feed of the finish line (thanks Steve and Wade), the finish line kiss makes it official.

Another finisher photo.

Another finisher photo.

Finishing at 9:30 am has its perks. The streets were lined with people and, as we neared the town center, people began shouting “Canada!” and friends were calling our names. We crossed the finish ramp hand-in-hand, kissed and were treated to a brief interview with the race announcer before leaving the finishers area.

143 hours 26 minutes and 25 seconds is an incredibly long time. It was much longer than I had imagined but it still fits within my goal of 1)finishing and 2)staying ahead of the cut-offs. Funnily enough, this time still garnered me 9/18 in the old ladies category! 337 out of 440 total finishers (720 starters!) and 32/44 women.

I am forever grateful to my dear husband, Bruce, for sticking by my side throughout the race and providing me with endless encouragement and insider information. When I chose TDG as an epic way to celebrate our epic marriage, I never imagined that we would run together. In fact, I was quite insistent throughout our training that we would run our own races. But there we were, hand-in-hand at the finish. Constantly I am reminded that Bruce is a treasure to behold. I have truly been fortunate to be the beholder. A lifetime ago, when I chose him and he chose me, it was the smartest thing either of us ever did. And we continue to live happily ever after.

Every couple married for 20 years should invest in matching jackets.

Every couple married for 20 years should invest in matching jackets.

Section 7  – 48.8 km in 21h 38m

Cummulative Total – 332.3 km in 143h 26m

Total Life Base/Rifugio Down Time = 30h

Total sleep = 16h 15m

(Click here to go to my packing lists , my initial impressions of finishing , or another post-race recap)

Courmayeur to Valgrisenche – 48.6 km (48.6 km total)

This is the first of seven posts describing my experiences during the Tor Des Geants 332.3 km race through the high Alps of the Aosta Valley in Northern Italy in September 2014. My TdG journey really began with this March 2014 post – The Dreaded Wait List . Enjoy! And thanks for stopping by.

Start Line to Life Base #1

Section #1 – Courmayeur to Valgrisenche

“Now bid me run, and I will strive with things impossible.” – Shakespeare, “Julius Caesar”

At 9:15 am, Bruce and I left the hotel, decked out in our race wear and hydration backpacks, having left our non-race suitcases with the concierge. As we walked the three blocks to the start line in the morning sunlight, it felt as if we were in a parade. Already crowds lined the street, waving flags of all different countries. After a quick photo of the sweepers and another of a child with a Canadian flag, we headed into the runners’ corral, swiping our computer-chip bracelets as we entered.

Start Line Selfie (where we actually said 'good-bye! Have a great race!')

Start Line Selfie (where we actually said ‘good-bye! Have a great race!’)

The racers were packed together with an electric energy and a feeling of camaraderie but still the remaining time dragged out and my butterflies increased. There were photography drones, muffled music, cowbells, distant announcements and white noise chatter all around. With 10 seconds to go, we all counted down and the race began at exactly 10:00 am.

The mass of runners shuffled along, packed tightly together, through the now familiar streets of Courmayeur. The streets were thick with cheering crowds who moved along with us, taking short-cuts to the streets below, ringing cowbells and calling out the Italian words of encouragement that I would soon know so well. Bruce filmed us as we ran along and you can hear my giggles of delight as I took it all in. Finally it was starting. Finally I could see if I was ready. Finally.

When we crossed the river, still on city streets, and the road inclined up towards the trailhead, the  runners near us walked up this first paved hill. I sighed with relief. I had found my people – people who were not racing; people who were here to soak in the experience. As we reached the bottleneck at the trailhead, there wasn’t an aggressive mash of elbows and trekking poles that I expected but instead a gently assertive merge. Bruce and I stuck together and found our place in the long, long snake of 700 runners winding up through the pine forest towards our first pass, Col d’Arp. The climb was almost 10 km long and we all fell into step, following the shoes in front. There was no jostling for position and no one back here tried to run. The trail had supporters standing at every switchback, bearing cameras, bells and words of encouragement.

The trees began to thin out and soon the open pastures treated us to long-awaited views. The conga line of racers stretched up through the dry, browning grasses and I could finally get a sense of the number of racers involved. A helicopter passed over and circled above us before heading higher to film the real contenders.

Col d'Arp - The long snake of 700 runners winding its way to the summit.

Col d’Arp – The long snake of 700 runners winding its way to the summit.

The trail widened to a gravel road, narrowed again to single track and the summit came into view, crowded with dozens of supporters. As most runners near us did, we stopped for what I thought would be our only summit selfie together.

Col d'Arp Summit Selfie

Col d’Arp Summit Selfie with the crowds of supports, photographers and racers beyond.

This is the point where I expected Bruce to head off down the valley and begin to run his own race. But as I tucked my poles away and settled into the rhythm of downhill running, I caught a glimpse of Bruce filming me from below and, as we neared the first refreshment station, he was still just ahead of me, holding out a jug of water for my bottles.

Farther down this descent, we came into La Thuile, the first town along the route, and the crowds were as thick and as enthusiastic as they had been at the starting line. It was difficult to get to the aid station food tables since the wall of Italian men was more than my 5’3″ frame could raze. But I managed to elbow my way through and get a glimpse of the food I would have to eat for the next week. Dried raisins, apricots and dates, fresh oranges, sausage, cheese, packaged fruit tarts and chocolate were the staples. Unfortunately there was nothing very salty to counter the sweetness of my dextrose drink mix and my endless quantities of sweet lunabars, gels and honey stinger waffles.

Aid station fare remained the same for the entire race - sausage, cheese, cookies, fresh bananas and oranges, dried fruit, chocolate.

Aid station fare remained mostly the same for the entire race – sausage, cheese, cookies, fresh bananas and oranges, dried fruit, chocolate. How I longed for salty potato chips!

We were keen to get away from the mob and head out to the next set of twin passes – Passo Alto and Col de la Crosatie. Since it was early afternoon on Sunday, the next climb was packed with hiking families. It seemed unbelievable to round a corner of a steep, rooty, rocky climb and find a five-year old cheering me on, offering to fill my water bottle from the nearby fountain. If a small child could do this climb, surely I could.

This little guy was filling his bottle at a nearby fountain and offering racers water as they passed. So cute!

Way up near the rifugio, this little guy was filling his bottle at a nearby fountain and offering racers water as they passed. So cute!

The climb up to Rifugio Deffeyes on the way to Passo Alto was truly stunning. The high pastures provided a rainbow of autumnal colours leading down to the brilliant blue of Lac du Ruitor below. Although the ever-moving parade of runners prevented me from pulling my camera out, I will not forget the golden sunburnt colours, framed by snow-capped peaks on that gorgeous view.

Passo Alto was one of those ‘a-ha’ moments for me where I first began to understand the reality of the terrain here in the high Alps. As we left the gorgeous grasslands near the rifugio, we began our true climb. Here the grasslands gave way to rock. Casting a glance upwards, I could see snippets of the snake of racers scrambling over grey rocky switchbacks. The steepness was such that I had to stop moving so I wouldn’t lose my balance as I craned my neck in the general direction of the pass. We just don’t have mountains like this at home. The steepness is unbelievable. The climbs go on forever and every footstep has to be considered. But all the effort seemed worth it since the views in every direction were beautiful. Looking north, the peak of Monte Bianco would occasionally show itself and looking east, the long glaciers of Gran Paradiso formed a snowy backdrop below a blue sky. This is what motivated me to come here – views like this.

As would become the pattern, the distant pass would suddenly be close and, next thing I knew, we were at the top. From our new vantage point, we looked straight across the valley and could see our next pass, Col de la Crosatie. But first we had to descend about 800 m (2500 ft) to the valley below and re-climb 800 m to that pass. Although those first few downhill switchbacks were too steep to run and the rocky footing was tricky, descending was a real treat. As the trail grade eased, it felt great to swoop back and forth, finally feeling like we were making real forward progress after hours of slow hiking. The trail was still packed with racers but the energy was high and chatter in a variety of languages could be heard throughout the descent.

Col de la Crosatie loomed large in my mind not only because I knew that the steep ascent would have ropes near the top but more importantly because a runner in TDG 2013 slipped to his death while descending the far side. After carefully negotiating the roped section of the ascent and taking our summit selfie in the waning sunlight of that first day, we came across the monument placed in the memory of Yang Yuan. Bruce and I both picked up rocks from the trailside and placed them on top of the monument, taking a moment to consider both the fragility of life and the extremes that we all push by pursuing these goals.

On Col de la Crosatie there are fixed ropes and steep drop-offs. I was glad to do this one in the daylight.

On the climb up to Col de la Crosatie, there are fixed ropes, sketchy footing and steep drop-offs. I was glad to do this one in the daylight.

The last rays of sun on day one at the summit of Col de la Crosatie.

The last rays of sun on day one at the summit of Col de la Crosatie.

Yang Yuan's Memorial on Col de la Crosatie - I believe that these are his words. Each side of the memorial had a translation.

Yang Yuan’s Memorial on the farside of Col de la Crosatie – I believe that these are his own words. Each side of the memorial had a translation – Chinese, Italian, English, French.

The long descent into Planaval allowed for pensive running bliss as I mulled over Yang Yuan’s untimely death. As we left the rocky steepness, a more gradual descent took us along a meandering stream and through grassy pastures while an almost full moon rose in the pale blue sky of late afternoon. It was a beautiful place to die.

Alpenglow, rising moon, blue skies, gentle descent. All is well in the world.

Alpenglow, rising moon, blue skies, gentle descent. All is well in the world.

From the quaint town of Planaval and its aid station, we headed up the valley on gentle back roads towards the first life base in Valgrisenche. Daylight was fading and, by the time we left Planaval, we needed our headlamps. The crowds of spectators had dissipated but individuals and pairs still cheered heartily whenever we passed.

Descending into the valley below Col de la Cosatie, we could see the town of Planaval in the foreground and Valgrisenche (first life base) farther up the valley.

Descending into the valley below Col de la Crosatie, we could see the town of Planaval in the foreground and Valgrisenche (first life base) farther up the valley.

We entered the Valgrisenche life base at 9:40 pm and found it packed to the gills with volunteers and racers. I felt confused by the bright lights, noise, crowds and confusing Italian directions I was hearing. It took a while before I had the wits to ask for instructions in French or English. Food this way? Beds that way? Drop bags over there? But, as with most things, the answers revealed themselves eventually and the essentials were always available.

Bruce and I found a partially empty table in the cafeteria area and went to fill our plates with hot pasta, cans of tuna and chunks of parmesan cheese. There was even an automated espresso machine that doled out a decent brew. As we ate, Bruce revealed that he wanted to stick with me for the duration of the race. His Shingles illness this spring had resulted in minimal training and he knew that he wouldn’t be breaking any personal records this year. Besides, we were having fun together, sharing the experience of the TDG. And so it was decided – we would run together for as long as possible.

In my drop bag, I had a long list of all the things I needed to do, to replenish and to consider while in a life base with my own gear. I read through it all, thankful for my forethought and planning. An hour later, as we prepared to head out into the night, I suddenly felt hurried, as if I was running a race. 

Here I am contemplating my long to-do list in the Valgrisenche life base. This list was like a lifeline for me as fatigue took over my brain.

Here I am contemplating my long to-do list in the Valgrisenche life base. This list was like a lifeline for me later in the event as fatigue took over my brain.

Despite my best intentions to be thorough, I made a few key errors here. Although I did wash my feet and change my socks, I ignored pre-blister hotspots on the balls of my feet. I also rushed to change into capri tights, leaving my favourite running shorts back in the women’s washroom, never to be seen again. Perhaps it was the new knowledge that I was now racing with Bruce, perhaps it was the congestion and high energy in the life base or perhaps it was the sudden onslaught of familiar faces (Jackie, Nicki, Deb, Suzy) in that station, but I got caught up in the race, hurried through my list and would regret it for days afterwards. At 10:38 pm, we donned our headlamps and headed out into the first night.

Section 1 – 48.6 km in 12h 38m (including 58m in Valgrisenche LB)

Total Life Base Time = 58m

Total Sleep = 0 hours

The saga continues here: Section #2 – Valgrisenche to Cogne

The Happy Wanderer

My Paths on Strava

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