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Donnas to Gressoney –  51.6 km (200.3 km total)

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

Section #4 - Donnas to Gressoney

Section #4 – Donnas to Gressoney

“You can hurt more than you ever thought possible, then continue until you discover that hurting isn’t that big a deal.” – Scott Jurek

When I reflect on the Tor Des Geants, I still marvel at the fact that I left the Donnas life base and continued on. I now believe that the key factor in my continuation was fear of being a drop-out, fear of admitting that I couldn’t do it, fear of disappointing myself, Bruce and my supporters. Those fears were greater than the agony in my knee, my confusion due to lack of sleep and the frustration with the sheer difficulty of the route. It was easier for me to carry on than to admit defeat.

Donnas is the lowest elevation of the entire route at 322 m (1050 ft). We now faced a 6400 ft climb over the next 20 km climb to reach the first of many high passes in this segment. Knowing that this would be a six hour endeavour, our goal was to reach Rifugio Coda before needing our headlamps. Luckily, hiking uphill was my area of strength since my knee gave me no grief while climbing.

While we were sleeping in Donnas, another big rain storm had passed over but it had cleared off by the time we hit the trails at 13:30 and the sun was bright and warm again. The trail was very urban here and took us on a long, circuitous, uphill route through suburbs, backyards, vineyards and town-connecting trails. We were always in view of houses, streets and man-made structures. An archway of espallied peach trees had recently been harvested but I found one lonely ripe peach as we hiked along. There is nothing as tasty as stolen fruit!

The urban trails around Donnas led us steeply up beside homes, orchards and yards.

The urban trails around Donnas led us steeply up beside homes, orchards and yards.

And then we were sent down again through somebody's vineyard.

And then we were sent down again through somebody’s vineyard. When you see the buildings, streets and cars below, you get a feeling for the perspective. There was no elevator available.

Above Donnas, we crossed the famous Pont St. Martin and were treated to a delicious local pastry (torteccini) at a refreshment station in Perloz.

This bridge is famous because the townsfolk tricked the devil. he built the bridge for them in exchange for the soul of the first to cross it. A mongrel dog was the first.

This bridge is famous because the townsfolk tricked the devil. He built the bridge for them in exchange for the soul of the first to cross it. A mongrel dog was the first.

An italian pastry twist called Torteccini di St Vincent, local to the Aosta Valley. So delicious! I had two or three at the aid station.

Finally, we left the villages and entered a true trail. Bruce and I chatted about many things as we hiked along and there was an unhurried feeling between us now.

Here is our first Alta Via No 1 marker. Arriving in Donnas, we had completed the southern Alta Via No 2 route and would now be on the Alta Via No 1, running on the northern side of the Aosta Valley.

Here is our first Alta Via No 1 marker. Arriving in Donnas, we had completed the southern Alta Via No 2 route and would now be on the Alta Via No 1, running along the northern side of the Aosta Valley.

But for much of this climb, I silently mulled over my decision to drop out at the next life base in Gressoney. The ramifications of dropping out weighed heavily on me:

How would I face my running buddies? Would everyone knowingly nod and say sympathetic remarks? What about all those other Canadians who were on the waiting list, desperately hoping to be selected for the race? What would they think of a person who dropped, not because of medical issues but because it was too hard?

This last point strongly resonated with me. Being on the waitlist is such a disappointment in itself but to stand by and witness racers drop out due to ill-preparedness or lack of desire is beyond frustrating as a waitlisted runner. This year’s TDG filled to 700 entrants in less than 10 minutes and the remaining 2000 were waitlisted. To me, that meant that thousands of others wanted my spot and each would be angry that I was squandering an opportunity. This thought motivated me more than any other.

As we passed through the lower forest, we were treated to the sight of a farmer herding his cattle up to higher ground for the night. With huge cows eyeing us on either side, we passed straight through the herd unscathed.

A cattle farmer was moving his herd to their evening grazing grounds.

A cattle farmer was moving his herd to their evening grazing grounds.

Who is in whose way?

Who is in whose way?

Rifugio Coda remained a long way off, giving me more time to ponder my imminent DNF.

Why was I finding the TDG so hard? In Donnas, Bruce reminded me that I knew it would be hard. But this was far more difficult than I had imagined. There was no comparison.

And somewhere on this climb, I came to terms with it all. Like a light switch being turned off, I realized that I had to shut off my thinking. No longer would I analyze the steepness, the rockiness or the terrain in front of me. No longer would I process the world around me, either for its immense beauty or retched ugliness. No longer would I take in and absorb the sights, smells or stimuli I came across.

I will hike up until I reached the top. Then I will hike down. I will repeat this process again and again without questioning. I will keep doing this until it is over.

So from here, my memory becomes foggy, clouded or completely absent. This is what it took for me to carry on. Perhaps it is a demonstration of my strength or my weakness. Perhaps it shows the extent of my fatigue. Whatever it was and however it looks in hindsight, I kept going until it was over, never again entertaining the idea of dropping out.

Rifugio Coda came into view as daylight was fading. It sat high and alone on a treeless ridge, beckoning us from across the basin. Although it was in sight, we still had to wind our way up along the ridgeline and headlamps were necessary for the final twenty minutes. Inside, the building was humming with activity. One floor was a sleeping loft; one floor was a restaurant for paying customers and the basement was for humble racers like us. The cramped quarters made it difficult to get to the food tables and, once seated, we were constantly blocking someone else. But this milestone had been achieved and we savoured the fact that we had travelled more than 100 miles and were approximately halfway done.

Back outside, we headed into our third night which quickly enveloped us in a four-hour rainstorm and the worst muddy trail conditions of the entire route. As we descended into the muddy depths of Lago Vargno, I was seething with frustration and anger. The lights of this rifugio had been briefly visible but it took about 90 minutes of slip-sliding down the steep descent in over-the-shoe mud before we arrived. Finding the inside of the rifugio too hot, too noisy and filled with too many people, I stationed myself outside and ate my bowl of hot pasta alone. Eventually I moved undercover to a tent with the time check crew where I listened to their contented Italian babble. Although I understood nothing, I was absorbed with their happy chatter and found that their positive mood pushed away the blackness of my own.

Col Marmontana, Col del Vecchio and the col in between (which is significant but not named on any map) were all passed in the depths of that third night. It was hard going and slow going and I have no memory of any of it. I know that Bruce broke two trekking poles during the night in separate situations, making his descent all the more difficult. When we finally were able to pack away our headlamps the next morning, we were descending a treacherously slippery trail with unavoidable puddles. I had been trying to keep my shoes and socks mostly dry so as to protect my taped-up blistered feet but there was no way to do so here. We trudged calf-deep through puddles of muck, never knowing if our shoe treads would hold.

From Rifugio Coda all the way to Niel, we had to negotiate mud like this. Slippery, greasy, sticky mud. In the dark.

From Rifugio Coda all the way to Niel, we had to negotiate mud like this on steep slopes. Slippery, greasy, sticky mud. On the side of a mountain. In the dark.

By the time we reached Niel at 8:20 am, we were both exhausted beyond frustration. The sunny patio was a lovely place to sit and people-watch. There was a delightful English couple in charge of the timing booth who bickered endlessly at each other under their breath. There was both hot polenta and pasta of which I ate plenty. We rested for too long and eventually headed back up the trail towards the next col.

Looking fine and refreshed, Bruce stand above the thriving metropolis of Niel

Looking fine and refreshed, Bruce stands above the thriving metropolis of Niel

Not even bothering to stop for a photo op, I am on a mission to get on with the next assault.

Not even bothering to stop for a photo-op, I am on a mission to get on with the next assault.

Col Lasoney was a true highlight of the course for me. Having just experienced the worst conditions imaginable, it was an absolute treat to be presented with a gentle, grassland climb.

What a welcome sight! The climb and descent around Col Lasoney was the most lovely by far!

What a welcome sight! The gentle climb and descent around Col Lasoney was the most lovely by far!

On the other side, the wide open prairie carried us gently down beside a river and I was actually able to run. It felt like we were running in the Sound of Music opening scene. Since I had stopped studying maps or elevation charts (why bother, I thought), I had no idea that this was the beginning of a 8 km gentle descent to the next life base. As we ran, a man flew his videography drone around Bruce and me as we ran. It would have been fabulous footage to see. This lovely runnable section was punctuated by a wild aid station of volunteers who were completely drunk and totally hilarious. It was amusing to see them stagger around, ringing dozens of loud cowbells and hollering encouragements but we couldn’t get away from the noise fast enough.

The trail into Gressoney became more challenging as we entered the steep, pine forest and once again I was only able to manage a painful hobble.

Steep and rocky (and terribly painful)

Steep and rocky (and terribly painful)

More rocks. Even steeper.

More rocks. Even steeper. And yes – that is the trail. You can see the marker on the other side of the rockfall.

Relief wafted over me as we entered the town limits and, once again, I entered the life base in tears. As usual, our routine was to eat, drink and sleep so we set about reloading our packs, eating a substantial meal with beer/red wine and grabbing a three-hour nap.

Indulging in a pre-nap beer, Bruce scoffs down his potato-tuna mash.

Indulging in a pre-nap beer, Bruce scoffs down his potato-tuna mash.

Looking better than I feel, I still maintain my non-food mixing strategy so that my pasta doesn't touch my salad.

Looking better than I feel, I still maintain my non-food mixing strategy so that my pasta doesn’t touch my salad. Can you see my huge cup of wine beyond the beer can?

But as I headed into the women’s sleeping quarters (the only time there was separation of sexes), I spied the medical and massage area and decided to have someone work on my knee. A doctor spent about 30 minutes using a deep massage technique to realign my patella. The source of my pain was deep inside my knee joint and it felt amazing to have it worked on for such a long time. I was sent off to the sleeping area with ice packs taped to my knee and advice to visit the doctor at every life base afterwards.

I gave up about 45 precious minutes of sleep time in order to get that medical treatment and then I was treated to a very poor sleep. Trying to sleep in a racquetball court is almost impossible, even if no one is playing. Every person’s movement was amplified and, even though there were only 10 beds in each court, the noise echoed enough to keep me just at the surface of sleep. When my alarm sounded, I dragged myself out and met up with Bruce as planned. We left Gressoney at 19:27 pm.

Section 4  – 51.6 km in 23h 55m

Gressoney Life Base – 5h 54m

Cummulative Total – 200.3 km in 75h 33m (+5h 54m in Gressoney LB)

Total Life Base Time = 17h 9m

Total sleep = 8h 15m

The saga continues here: Section #5 – Gressoney to Valtournenche

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

The Happy Wanderer

My Paths on Strava

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