Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Tor des Geants, day two

Beat all but told me that he didn't expect to make it beyond kilometer fifty in the Tor des Geants, so I packed his flip flops and a change of clothes before I drove out to meet him at Valgrisenche. He arrived twelve hours into the race, just after 10 p.m., with a slight hobble and a despondent look on his face. "Just say the word," I said without adding any sugar-coated but ultimately empty words of encouragement. "You don't have to do this." 

As lightning streaked through the night sky, he paused for several seconds and gazed resolutely toward a black wall of mountains. "I can probably do one more section."

 Beat told me if I did anything in the Aosta Valley this week, I should climb Col Loson from the west slope. I intended to start in Eaux Rousses before he reached the village and stay ahead of him, but I slept too late. It sounds lazy next to what Beat is doing, but I discovered amid crewing this race that there will usually be time for hiking, but sleeping will be more rare. I sometimes have to meet him at checkpoints at odd hours, and they're all at least an hour of driving away, some nearly two, even between each other. Driving in the Aosta Valley is an endurance sport of its own — all of the roads are nearly too narrow for two cars to pass, marked with warnings I don't understand, are surrounded either by stone walls or sheer drop-offs, are sometimes incredibly steep, and are crowded with local Italian drivers who tear down the winding pavement at breathtaking speeds. I can't adequately convey just how much driving in the Aosta Valley stresses me out. The driving here is more physically taxing than the hiking. Perhaps I would feel differently if I had to hike 330 kilometers — but three to four hours of driving per day, plus two to three hours of crewing, plus five to seven hours of hiking, equals one tired Jill. But I can't complain, because it's not like I'm racing the Tor des Geants.

 Anyway, Beat checked out of Eaux Rousses started up Col Loson about an hour before I did. I knew I'd need to go hard to bank enough time to climb to the top and back, then drive around to the next life base, Conge (32 kilometers by foot, 75 minutes by car.) I made the mistake of dressing too much like a "runner" (gray running skirt, UTMB tech shirt, and Salomon calf sleeves), which resulted in looks of surprise and suspicion as I passed TDG racers. From now on I'm going to try to dress more like a "hiker" so already demoralized runners know that I'm fresh and rested and not playing a fair game. It is a fun way to watch the race, though. I get to meet and cheer on dozens of runners.

But already these runners have been going so hard, for so long, that they're largely desensitized to all but their most basic functions and immediate surroundings. This makes them do funny and awkward things, like collapse on a grassy slope with their head downhill and their limbs splayed out. Should I check to make sure he's still breathing? If this were the normal world, I would, but this is the Tor des Geants. Eh, he's fine.

 Beat was right about the valley below Col Loson — simply amazing.

I caught up to Beat near the base of Col. I expected to see him in much worse shape, but he was climbing strong and smiling. He said his feet still hurt, but the cramping in his legs had mostly subsided. And the fact was, he was making good time — only a few hours behind where he was at that point last year. He excitedly told stories about his night as we marched up the rocky trail.

 He was in a surprisingly good mood. Beat does love Col Loson.

 The trail to this pass just climbs and climbs and climbs. The village of Eaux Rousses is down at 5,400 feet and the col is 10,830. So for a single pass, he had to log a vertical mile not even factoring multiple drops and climbs along the mountainside. Near the top, the wind was brisk and fresh snow covered the rocks. We saw a couple of racers who were suffering from altitude sickness.

 At the col, we shared a brief goodbye before Beat began the endless descent to Cogne. The Tor des Geants has so many huge passes that they just have to take them all in stride.

 On my way back to Eaux Rousses, I encountered my friend Ana Sebastian, a Spanish runner who I met last year in Nepal. Ana planned to run UTMB last week, but couldn't start because of a grade three sprained ankle. I had lunch in Chamonix with her the day before the race, and she was still having trouble walking down the street. We joked about me taking her bib and giving TDG a shot if only I could fool the passport checkers into believing I was a Spanish woman with short brown hair. But Ana, being the kind of person who signs up for races like the Tor des Geants one week after UTMB, decided to start anyway. Interestingly, her ankle wasn't giving her too many problems, but her knees were sore and swollen. I could tell she was in pain and torturing herself in the same ways Beat has been, but I was still terribly excited to see her there. Ana is the kind of person I feel closely connected to, even though we don't know each other well and struggle to communicate with each other (although her English is fairly good, it's limited, and my Spanish is nonexistent.) Still, there are some people you just "get." If she finishes the race, I promised Ana I'll eat a liter of gelato with her at a place in Courmayeur that serves gelato by the liter. I really hope she finishes.

I did a fair bit of running down to Eaux Rousses to make up for lost time, but my shins were unhappy and I had a strange tweak in my right knee. I can already tell I'm going to be managing some post-UTMB stuff until I take a proper rest. But I think it's manageable, and I'll stop if it increases. Still, I hate to waste any opportunity to go into these mountains. And it's not like I'm running the TDG or anything.

Eaux Rousse to Col Loson, round trip: 16.5 miles.
Total climbing: 6,434 feet
Total time: 5:54

 It's worth it. It seems Beat would agree. He's still going.


  1. Thanks for sharing these beautiful pictures Jill! Wish I was there...

  2. Oh my! I'm having Col Loson flashbacks. This is the kind of place you want to go for a holiday. As much as I love events, with all the trails and all of the Refugios, it's a trail enthusiasts, and a Mountain Lovers wet dream. With a climax. :) It is that amazing. Enjoy Jill! I'm most envious - even though I have 100 miles to Mount Shasta to attend to myself.

  3. Drive a car in Italy (and especially the mountain area) for 1 week and you drive like an Italian :-)

  4. As someone who tends to give up at the first sign of physical discomfort, I would really appreciate it if you and Beat could write about how you mentally push yourself through stuff like this. Dang.


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