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Gressoney-Saint-Jean to Valtournenche – 36.0 km (236.3 km total)

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

Section #5 - Gressoney-Saint-Jean to Valtournenche

Section #5 – Gressoney-Saint-Jean to Valtournenche

“Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task.” – William James

When Bruce and I left the Gressoney life base at 19:27, we had less than an hour of daylight left. Somehow we had established an unfortunate pattern of sleeping and spending daylight hours in life bases and always being on the move at night. We hadn’t gone over a pass in daylight since Col Loson in section #2. Out of the 12 passes we had ascended so far, only five had been in daylight and now we were on our way up to Col Pinter which would be our eighth night pass. This pattern could only be blamed on simple bad luck in timing. The endless hours in the dark were taking their toll on me.

I had never run all through a night before this race. I had never had the lack of visual stimuli that night running brings and, since I am very motivated by views and sights, I lost all motivation to move quickly or to see what the next vista had to offer. I was always moving forward but far more slowly now. Bruce was often so far ahead that I could not see his light and he would wait (and wait) for me to catch up.

In this segment, my mind began to wander and play tricks on me. The headlamp over my running cap brim gave the endless sensation of being directly under an overpass and I found myself occasionally looking straight up to see where the overpass would end. I began to see things in my periphery, like Frenchmen trying to hand me flowers but, when I looked over, I would see only wild grasses swaying at the trailside.

As I walked along in the dark, I started to pay attention to the wet shoe prints on the rocks and the way that the tread marks would look a bit like letters and numbers. I remember seeing the number 5 and noting that it was unusual to see such a clear symbol created by shoes and mud. But then I saw a 7. And then another 5. Was that a 3? I thought that I should be writing these numbers down because they could have some significance – like the number of kilometres left or perhaps winning lottery numbers.

I also began to see pictures in the wet shoe prints and I was convinced that these were hieroglyphics which, if I could just figure out the code, would reveal an interesting story or perhaps some tidbit of history. For hours it seemed, I attempted to read these hieroglyphics and eventually I discovered the history of how the Alps were created:

Long, long ago, Italians wanted to create their own beautiful gardens beside their homes but everywhere that they tried to dig, they found only rocks. As the townsfolk got more and more frustrated with the over abundance of rocks, they took their issue to the councils. The town councils listened to the people’s complaints and decided that every Italian should bring their rocks down to the town square. So people everywhere brought carts and wagons filled with rocks to the town square. Soon enough, the Alps were formed from these great mounds which is where we were hiking today.

My hallucinations were vivid and made perfect sense to me in the middle of our fourth night. But, deep in my mind, I knew that I was being ridiculous and that it was all a result of sleep deprivation.

At one point, I caught up to Bruce who had waited patiently (and endlessly) for me to descend an easy, wide, gravel road. I decided to tell him what I had discovered, knowing that he would get a kick out of my silliness. After hearing the collection of my tales, he pulled out the video camera and asked me to repeat my discoveries while he recorded my voice. In a dream-like, fairy voice, I recounted everything about the lottery numbers, the hieroglyphics and the history of the Alps. I also pointed out all the faces I could see in the rocks and I told the stories that went with each face. Realizing the extent of my sleep deprivation, he determined that I needed to sleep – pronto! Saint-Jacques was the next rifugio and, when we arrived at 2:45 am, we asked for a bed. Within seconds of lying down on the upper bunk, I was out cold for two hours.

Upon waking, my initial sensation was complete pain from head to toe, as if my whole body were cramping up and my skin was burning. It soon passed but would return every time I woke from a sleep from here on. One of the medical volunteers noticed my difficulty coming down the stairs with my now seized-up knee and asked about my knee pain. He offered me a pain-killer which I had never heard of but which I accepted without a second thought. Until that point, it hadn’t even occured to me to take pain medication for my knee and now I was taking something unknown from a complete stranger. What would my mother say!?

After that much-needed rest, we began the climb to Col di Nana. Although I have heard that this is a beautiful section of the course, I have no memory of it at all. Here are some pictures taken in this section:

In the famous non-aid station, we were treated to freshly-pulled espresso served properly in real cups as well as shortbread tarts and other delicacies.

In the famous non-aid station on the way to Pinter, we were treated to freshly-pulled espresso served properly in real cups as well as shortbread tarts and other delicacies.

After our sleep in Saint-Jacques, we made it to Rifugio Grand Tournalin just before sunrise.

After our sleep in Saint-Jacques, we made it to Rifugio Grand Tournalin just before sunrise.

It was pretty chilly in those early morning hours!

It was pretty chilly in those early morning hours!

Leaving Rifugio Gran Tournalin, we could see the trail traverse to the pass and many runners making their way in the first sunbeams of the day.

Leaving Rifugio Grand Tournalin, we could see the trail traverse upwards to the pass and many runners making their way along in the first sunbeams of the day.

The Col di Nana and the edge of morning sunlight.

The Col di Nana and the edge of morning sunlight.

We are Just about at the summit of Col di Nana. You can see a summit cairn on the right of Bruce and me on his left side.

We are just about at the summit of Col des Fontaines. You can see a summit cairn on the right of Bruce and me on the left.

One of the few photos in this section where I actually make eye contact. I think this is the summit of Col des Fontaines.

One of the few photos in this section where I actually make eye contact. I think this is the summit of Col des Fontaines.

The Matterhorn (Monte Cervino), slightly shrouded in high cloud,  was visible from this pass.

The Matterhorn (Monte Cervino), on the far right slightly shrouded in high cloud, was visible from this area.

A most picturesque rifugio (that I don't remember at all!)

A most picturesque rifugio (that I don’t remember at all!)

When we arrived at the Valtournenche life base at 10 am, I headed to the medical/massage area right away and eventually got to see a doctor. Again using a deep tissue massage technique, this physio was able to pinpoint the source of my knee pain and recover some range of motion. While waiting for me and my treatment, Bruce indulged in a leg massage which seemed to work out a lot of his aches.

I was able to grab snippets of sleep in between the flashes of painful deep massage.

During my deep massage treatment in Valtournenche LB, I was able to grab snippets of sleep in between the flashes of pain.

Having eaten, replenished our gear and had a bit of down time, we headed out just after noon on Thursday.

Section 5  – 36.0 km in 14h 47m

Cummulative Total – 236.3 km in 96h 14m (+ 2h 4m in Valtournenche LB)

Total Life Base/Rifugio Down Time = 21h 09m

Total sleep = 10h 15m

The saga continues here: Section #6 – Valtournenche to Ollomont

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

The Happy Wanderer

My Paths on Strava

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