Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Last day in Italy

Goodbye, Valle d'Aosta 
Sunday marked the last full day of a long, sometimes exhausting, but incredibly rewarding trip to Europe. During the last week I had grown particularly attached to Courmayeur, and bid my personal goodbyes to all of the things I was going to miss — the light-hearted and friendly locals, the delicious thin-crust pizzas, and of course all of the mountains. So many mountains, so little time and energy in life to visit them all. But I felt like I had a good run during this trip. 

 On Sunday morning, the Tor des Geants held its final awards ceremony. It seemed like most of the town turned out to spectate. The friendly woman who ran the desk at our hotel even shut down the front office for a couple of hours to stand in the crowd and cheer for runners. All of the finishers gathered to parade down the main street of Courmayeur. This photo is a picture of Beat with his friend Dima and Dima's girlfriend Karen. Dima and Beat traveled together for some time during the 2011 Tor des Geants, which is how they became friends. Dima, whose full first name is Dmitry, is a Russian who lives in the eastern United States. He teased Beat about finding the only other Russian Dmitry to partner with in this year's running of the TDG. After the race we also got to spend a little time with Beat's 2012 Dmitry, a soft-spoken software developer who just moved to New York.

Afterward, Beat and I met Ana for our promised gelato celebration. Ana succeeded in finishing the 2012 Tor des Geants despite multiple setbacks, including her sprained ankle before the event. She stoically kept at it, and arrived at the finish line on Saturday morning. Although Ana and I vowed to each eat a liter of gelato together if she finished the TDG, in the end we both chickened out. I was about to head out for an afternoon hike that 33 ounces of heavy cream and sugar would have likely sidelined, and I think Ana was just too tired to eat more than a normal portion. But the gelato was delicious. I had cherry and Nutella-flavored scoops on a cone. This is another thing I will miss about Courmayeur. 

Because I was still dealing with frequent leg cramps, I told Beat I wanted to do something "short and easy" for my afternoon outing. The problem with climbing mountains in Courmayeur is the complete absence of anything resembling "short and easy." But it was my last day in Italy, and I just had to visit one more mountain. I chose Mont Cormet, an 8,200-foot peak that towers directly over town. I set up this timed photo to illustrate what hiking above the Aosta Valley usually entails — the "trail" shoots straight up the mountain slope on a 50-percent grade. Even at a snail's pace, my leg muscles were on fire. No wonder they've been cramping so much. As I climbed closer to the peak, I encountered some difficult terrain including traverses of extremely steep avalanche gullies, scrambles beside cliff bands, and navigating around a maze of large metal "nets" presumably constructed to prevent rockslides from tumbling all the way into town. During that section I had one mile that my Garmin registered as a 57-minute-mile. So much for short and easy. 

During the climb, I thought about Beat's effort in his two European races. The PTL was 290 kilometers with 22,000 meters of climbing. The Tor des Geants was 303 kilometers with 24,000 meters of climbing. In the context of my 57-minute-mile, the numbers were difficult to fathom. And yet, by grinding away at it one kilometer at a time, he'd managed to accomplish the impossible-seeming big picture. Runners have different agendas. Many are experimenting with how fast they can go, but some of us are genuinely more interested in discovering how far we can go. Beat just took his running farther than he has yet, and it was enlightening to observe the ways in which he became stronger as he went. His body seemed to adapt to his increasing demands, and besides his feet, he had relatively few physical issues. As for his feet, he admits he made a couple of misjudgments in the early miles of the PTL that resulted in him having to work hard to mitigate the damage for the remainder of PTL and all of TDG. But Beat's personal distance experiment went farther toward confirming a theory I've long held about endurance challenges — that beyond the limitations of our own minds, our individual potential is unimaginably extensive.

Perhaps someday I will return to these mountains to test this theory on myself. Until then, I will look back fondly to the striking beauty and the muscle-grinding terrain that necessitates 57-minute miles.

Courmayeur to Mont Cormet, round-trip distance: 9.4 miles
Total climbing: 4,377 feet
Total time: 3:48


  1. "beyond the limitations of our own minds, our individual potential is unimaginably extensive"- true that! Life is truly rewarding when you push the boundaries...on on

  2. How funny: I was standing just outside the frame of the street parade picture. It's visible the hand of a friend of mine I was talking with, holding the handle of a green walking pole, on the right of the picture. I missed my chance for notoriety just by 10 inches!

  3. Luca, sorry we missed the meetup. I hope very much we'll get another chance next year. I am growing very fond of Courmayeur and the Aosta valley. Best of memories :) During the PTL we got to visit france, Switzerland and Italy and the Italian refuges are hands-down the most friendly with the best food (and real espresso in many of them!!!), and it seems the Aosta valley gets better weather normally as well - what's not to love. I already miss it.

    Cheers Beat

  4. I lived in Italy and visited the Val d'Aosta several times and always felt it was unreal, too perfect, as utopian as possible for me. Seeing the pics flooded it back; I can almost feel that air in my lungs.
    Thank you.

  5. Hello Beat, make sure you and Jill will get in touch next time you're in Courmayeur. I'll be definitely around too ;)

  6. Beautiful post/reflection, both in the narrative as well as the photos.


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