On paper, the Tor des Geants is a 200-mile foot race with 80,000 feet of climbing. But on its rugged surface, this loop around the Aosta Valley is so much more than its insufficient numbers. It's miles of boulder fields and crumbling shale and 40-percent grades. It's calf-shredding climbing followed my quad-crushing descents. It's 4,000 vertical feet of trail so steep that your heels never touch the ground, cresting on narrow cols before plunging off seemingly impossible cliffs. Exposure, leaping steps and knee agony are just a small battles in the grand scheme of this unfathomable physical and mental war.
The race started at a merciful 10 a.m. Sunday morning. A large crowd had gathered in downtown Courmayeur as church bells range through the cool air. It was cloudy and humid but the excitement was electric.
Beat, Harry and Steve at the start. There were more than 500 racers lining up for the Tor des Geants. Because he's a 2010 finisher, Beat received a special race number with his finishing position, 98.
After cheering the guys on, I wrapped up a few chores and then headed out for a quick trip up to Col Arp, which is the first pass in the race. It rained intermittently and even though the race started just hours earlier, the trail was completely deserted. The sweepers had even cleaned up the course markings, leaving no sign of the 500 people who passed through here.
I had to hurry in order to meet Beat at the first life base, so I veered onto an adjacent fire road so I could run (the trails here are much too steep for someone like me to even attempt more than a determined hike, both up or down.) I climbed to 8,500 feet, again, before rushing back down to town as fast as my legs could carry me while the sky grew darker and the air colder. It says something about the scale of the mountains here that you can't even run from town to a minor pass without logging 5,000 feet of climbing on the ol' GPS. Both runners and mountain bikers who live here and recreate on a regular basis must be in amazing shape. The sky opened up to a spectacular downpour just as I reached my front door.
Despite the rain and cold, Beat seemed in good spirits at the first life base, with 50 kilometers of difficulty behind him. He arrived with Anne Ver Hoef and said they spent a good deal of the miles traveling together and discussing the Iditarod Trail Invitational, a 350-mile race in Alaska that both are registered for in 2012. Anne has competed in the ITI before and said the TDG is harder. Having seen small sections of the TDG, I have no doubt about this.