Monday, September 10, 2012

Onto the Tor des Geants

Beat and I spent the past week in Germany visiting his mom. It was a quiet five days of refueling with delicious German bread and yogurt, and getting the tiniest bit of work done. Beat's feet were shredded after the PTL — the entire pad of his right foot was a giant blister — so he refrained from even walking down the street. I felt good after UTMB; as soon as I caught up on sleep and the soreness in my left knee subsided, I would go so far as to say I felt the same as I did before the race. It's strange, because when I ran the Laurel Highlands 70-miler in June, I felt so much more muscle soreness and overall fatigue. UTMB was undoubtedly tougher than that, and yet I emerged from it as though I'd just gone out for a casual weekend run. I think it's a statement about how much my mind is directing this little hobby of mine, and my body is simply along for the ride. Because I braced myself for 45 hours at the limits of my abilities, 23 hours of mud management felt relatively minimal.

So while Beat soaked his feet, I got in a few hours of trail running on the Hermannsweg in Bielefeld. This trail system reminds me of lush forest paths in the eastern United States, and makes for relaxing and enjoyable running. Although I tried to keep it dialed back and lower intensity in the interest of remaining healthy for the following week, I still logged 33 miles over four days. On Thursday I did one harder (for me) twelve-mile run (9:45-minute-mile pace on a route with 2,300 feet of climbing.) While I was blissfully loping through the forest, I hardly noticed the effort. But as soon as I set foot back in the house, all of my UTMB fatigue came flooding back into my bloodstream in a rush of lactic acid and light-headedness. I was shattered for the rest of the day; I couldn't even focus on an article I was working on. It seems my body has a say in this after all.

On Saturday, we returned to the Alps for part two of Beat's glorious mountain beat-down. There isn't time in this blog post to go into the analysis of why he's like this, but he loves look for the next hardest challenge in organized events. When he found out the PTL (290 kilometers, 22,000 meters of climbing) was just one week before the Tor des Geants (330 kilometers, 24,000 meters of climbing) he just had to do them both. Oy. Although he was genuinely excited about the soul-crushing fatigue of such a challenge, I don't think he was expecting PTL to wreck his feet the way it had. He fretted about it all week in Germany, but decided to start the TDG anyway.

Beat at the starting line in the town center of Courmayeur, Italy, just before 10 a.m. Sunday. He doesn't normally like to wear Hoka One Ones (the padded clown shoes that I love) but decided his feet needed all the help they could get. He packed his gear loosely in a Raidlight 30-liter pack because it helped alleviate some tension on his shoulders and back. He was surprisingly calm all day Saturday and Sunday morning; his lack of angst revealed the ways in which his heart just isn't in it this year. But we both agreed that all he's doing is going to spend some time in the mountains until he doesn't feel like doing that anymore, and then he'll stop. Time will tell whether his stubbornness sees this sentiment through to the finish.

The race start was fun and exciting, as traditional Italian dancers pranced down the streets of Courmayeur, remote-control helicopters with cameras buzzed around, and a crowd 600 runners and hundreds more spectators hummed with nervous energy. Six hundred is still a lot of runners, but it just feels like a more appropriate scale for such an event than UTMB. It's large enough to be a grand exit, but still intimate enough that you feel like you're a part of it, rather than a distant spectator squinting at a screen.

I was planning to meet Beat at the first life base and 50-kilometer mark later that evening. After getting some errands done, I figured I had four hours to complete a hike of my own. I'd forgotten just how much time crewing for TDG demands; last year I had to go hard to squeeze in a few hours to myself during the day. It seems this year will be no exception.

I picked the Col Licony trail because it's a place in Courmayeur that I never visited last year. The trail was runnable in the marginal way a trail that gains an average of 1,200 feet per mile can be runnable — that is to say, it's still faster for a person like me to power-hike. My legs kept a great pace until mile four or so, when I started to experience sharp cramps in my calves. Beat, unsurprisingly, has been enduring even worse cramping in the TDG. My determination had to surrender to my tired muscles, and I slowed my pace. Still, the last two miles were comically steep, in such a way that I was often using my hands to scramble up the rock steps along the trail. Even at 30-minute-mile pace, I began seeing stars.

What I appreciate about trail signs in the Alps is that they never tell you how far away something is, only how long it will take to get there. This is probably because most hikers would see three kilometers and not expect that it would take them more than an hour to cover that distance. So these signs tell the hard truth, but it's also fun to see how well I can beat the projected times. I can sometimes halve them when hiking hard uphill, but my downhill times are usually closer to projections.

The trail took me all the way to Bivacco Pascal, a stone hut at a point on the ridge at 9,630 feet elevation. Even though it had been 28 degrees C in Courmayeur, a chilled wind blew along the high ridge and it felt significantly colder. All of the sweat I generated from hiking in the heat seemed to flash-freeze to my skin. This is a good place for a mountain shelter.

The views from Bivacco Pascal. It certainly wouldn't be a bad place to spend a night. 

Courmayeur is such a great mountain town. The village is relatively small, the food is wonderful (mmm, Italian) and the mountain access is almost unparalleled. It's always fun to walk out of a hotel room and score 6,000 feet of vertical relief in an afternoon. The views of the Aosta Valley, more the a vertical mile below, were stunning.

Courmayuer to Bivacco Pascal, distance round-trip: 12.5 miles
Total climbing: 6,643 feet
Time: 4:14

I'm stoked to be back in these mountains. 


  1. WOW Jill! Definitely envious of your life right now...hope your trip continues to be beautiful and challenging! See you soon...

  2. Beautiful last photo, and I'm sure it does not even do justice to the real thing!

  3. Your pictures are making me envious. I really need to get back to the Alps...

  4. Looks really beautiful. I am tired just thinking about what Beat is doing. So so tired just thinking about it...

  5. Just found your blog and love it-- your pics are spectacular! I feel like you are definitely my kind of lady! :)

  6. Go Beat go....epic stuff happening here! And congrats Jill on your own race (even if not to your full expectations)


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