Monday, September 21, 2015

Shadowing the Tor des Geants, 2015

After our extended family visit in Switzerland, Beat and I drove to Courmayeur, Italy, for the sixth running of the Tor des Geants. This 200-mile loop around the Aosta Valley holds a special place in Beat's heart. Even as we discuss focusing on different, non-race adventures in the future, the TDG is likely to continue prompting yearly returns. Beat has finished every single Tor des Geants — he's one of just 13 runners to do so. I've joked that Beat values his "senatori" status in the TDG as much as his PhD in physics. Of course that's not true, but as a senatori, Beat does have something like celebrity status in these small communities of northern Italy. Senatoris also receive guaranteed entry into this increasingly popular race.

The Tor des Geants follows an incredible and especially demanding course in the Italian Alps, but what really makes this race special is its sense of community. Most of the Aosta Valley shows up to support this event, and TDG draws participants from all over the world. It's become this annual gathering of the most like-minded of crazies, and it's fun to visit friends from around the globe. As we were walking through town the day before the race, we bumped into the man who accompanied Beat to Nome in 2013, Marco Berni. While we were exchanging hugs, Ausilia and Sebastian — an Italian couple who together completed the ride to Nome — approached, and just like that we're having an Iditarod reunion on the streets of Courmayeur.

The race started on Sunday, September 13, under steady rain and temperatures in the upper 40s. The forecast for the week was not encouraging, with below-freezing temperatures and a lot more precipitation on tap. Beat wasn't too concerned about the weather, but he had a few nagging issues with his feet and knee after PTL, and wasn't particularly enthused at the start. I see this every year, though — he starts the TDG feeling uncertain and downtrodden, and then he becomes progressively stronger.

My plan for the week was to visit Beat once a day at the race life bases, make sure he had what he needed, take his wet clothes to wash and dry, and generally just do the crew stuff that Beat doesn't really need, but doesn't refuse, either. This task involves a lot of driving (most of the life bases are far up canyons with narrow, winding roads, requiring at least an hour commute each way), and of course a lot of waiting. It always takes more time than I anticipate, but I still found time most days to either hike or work, although foregoing sleep also became necessary. On Sunday afternoon there was a short break from the rain, and I embarked from town on a classic ridge walk to Tete de la Troche and down Val Sapin. The ridge was enveloped in fog the entire time, which provided a nice atmosphere for reflection. From the moment we arrived in Italy, I developed a melancholy that shadowed me for most of the week. At times I was very sad, and also confused as to why. I'll write more about this in a subsequent post, but as always, solo walks are fantastic for sorting out errant but effecting emotions.

Just as I was returning from Val Sapin, the clouds broke open and heavy rain began to fall. This continued for the entire night as Beat and 800 other TDG runners made their way over high passes where precipitation changed to freezing rain, and then snow. A landslide on one of the passes and concerns about ice prompted the race organizers to pause the race for three hours, and runners were forced to wait at the closest aid stations. Beat and several other friends were crammed into a small, high-altitude refuge, where they were drenched and freezing, and their wasn't even enough space for everyone to sit down. Beat was well prepared with extra dry clothing and microspikes for the ice, but many other runners had only the bare minimum of required gear. The scenario sounded like something of a mess, but not unexpected in the Alps in September. There were quite a few who dropped from the race and some rescues, but as far as I know, no major injuries.

The race pause meant Beat would arrive at the 100-kilometer mark later than originally anticipated, which gave me time to hike Col Loson in the afternoon. Col Loson from the Eaux Rousse side is one of my favorite day hikes ever — a long, continuous ascent of 6,000 feet in 8 miles, topping out on a narrow pass overlooking a breathtaking landscape of 4,000-meter peaks and glaciers. It's the highest pass in the Tor des Geants (just under 11,000 feet elevation), and also the longest climb in that race.

 Despite a poor night of sleep and weird moodiness, I felt physically strong — the best I'd felt since UTMB. I managed to squeeze my hike into a nice gap in the race — since the TDG had been restarted in waves the night before, most runners were bunched up either ahead or behind. It was beautiful and quiet, with rapidly changing weather — rolling thunderstorms, snow flurries, and flecks of sun. I caught and passed one runner, and noticed him tailing me from about 50 meters back for more than a mile. When the cold wind prompted me to pull over and put on a jacket, he stopped beside me. "You go very fast!" he said in English with what I guessed was a French accent, although I can't distinguish accents that well.

"Oh, I'm not in the Tor des Geants," I said. "I'm just hiking."

"You should be in Tor," he said. "You go very fast."

Ha ha, if only he knew. I smiled. This friendly guy had already missed a night of sleep and traveled nearly a hundred kilometers of endless ups and downs. He probably had no conception of how much he'd slowed down himself, when I was well-rested — well, not really well-rested, but my legs were fresh. Still, part of the reason I'd been feeling down was regret about how slow I am on mountain terrain, so I took his complement gratefully. "Thanks," I said. "But I can only be fast because I've been sleeping."

 I do have a point of reference. I attempted the Tor des Geants in 2014, and scratched at 200 kilometers after a fall that resulted in a partially torn LCL in my left knee. Because of this, I mostly associate my own Tor des Geants experience with that extremely painful limp out from the point where I fell — it took me 9 hours to travel 14 kilometers — and the 8 weeks of recovery that followed. Before all that happened, I loved the Tor des Geants and found the race mostly enjoyable, although I've vowed not to return until I can log a whole summer of proper mountain training. Descents are my weakness by a large degree, and I can't become better at those without actual practice on long, steep, rocky downhills.

 Now that my perspective has been enriched by two thirds of a TDG, hiking a single pass feels almost effortless in comparison. I was disappointed to reach the top so soon, but anything higher is technical climbing or at least highly exposed scrambling. Even though snow was rapidly melting, it made things a little dicey on the descent. I made an effort to get off the trail for every runner who was approaching.

I bumped into Beat during the descent, as he and two friends were making their way up the pass. Chris (in the middle) is a friend from Switzerland who used to live in the Bay Area, and Miles is originally from Britain but lives in Canmore, Alberta. Beat met Miles during this year's race, and we ended up spending quite a bit of time with him this week. Yay for more friends who live in the Canadian Rockies.

 Beat with standard life base fare — pasta, tomato sauce, canned tuna, and hard-boiled egg. The other aid station food is mostly limited to dried meat, cheese, bread, crackers, pound cake, and chocolate. If you're even slightly turned off by any of these things, you better bring your own supplemental food. Last year I struggled with the lack of gummy candy, which is about all I can eat when I'm nauseated. I still can't look at fontina cheese without feeling slightly ill.

 On Tuesday I had a couple of different deadlines to meet, so I couldn't hike, but I managed to catch Beat and Miles in Donnas. Our Australian friend Roger Haney was there as well, and I met another crew person, a Irish guy named Graeme, who helped pass the time while Beat slept. The social aspect of the TDG is fun, especially if you're observing the sleep-deprived silliness rather than contributing to it.

 The weather only saw short breaks from wetness and fog on Monday and Tuesday, and by Wednesday it was completely socked in again. I made the long drive to Gressoney in the pouring rain, and embarked on a hike up Col Lauzoney in even heavier rain. It was so wet that two English runners who I think recognized me from the Donnas life base teased me — "Nice day for a stroll," one said and laughed. But I'd arrived five hours earlier than I expected Beat, and marching up wet rocks in the rain is still better than sitting in a car I'd managed to make borderline unbearable by (unintentionally) leaving a pair of Roger's wet Hokas inside overnight.

 I intersected Beat near the pass, where the rain was accompanied by a cold wind. He was in a surprisingly good mood, marching to silly metal music on a playlist I made for him, and breaking into a run as he descended. Since TDG doesn't allow pacing of any kind, I told him I'd hike for ten more minutes and then descend behind him. I promised I'd still reach Gressoney before him, since my car was parked four kilometers before the life base. Of course I didn't catch him, because Beat was becoming increasingly faster and stronger as the race went on, and I flounder when I'm at my best. During a particularly steep and rocky — and thus slippery — part of the descent, I heard someone from behind and pulled over to let them pass. It turned out to be a local shepherd — a small man with a huge plastic bag slung over his shoulders and canvas sneakers on his feet. He stopped and pointed to my feet, leaned way back, shook his head, and then leaned forward. I presumed he was giving me advice about my posture, and the importance of keeping my center of gravity over my feet. After he bounded down the hill, I made an effort to mimic his stance, and it actually helped a lot. Maybe I'm not a completely hopeless case — I just need more practice.

 Just as Beat was leaving the 200-kilometer life base at 8 p.m., he was stopped by a race official who told him the race had again been suspended. At the time it seemed like a strange decision, as the rain had tapered off, we could see skies clearing overhead, and the temperature in town was still 14C, making it seem unlikely it was below freezing even 1,500 meters higher. As it turned out, the race was paused because of thick fog. Visibility had dropped to less than a meter at higher altitudes, and several runners and even volunteers became lost in the fog. People navigate this race by yellow flags, and if they can't see them, there's a good chance they could wander off the faint path into much more dangerous terrain. It's too much of a liability for an organized race with hundreds of runners. They waited all night for the fog to clear, but by 8 a.m. it was still thick and the weather forecast promised more rain and possibly snow. For the first time in six years, they called off the TDG. Runners who were still in the race at that point were given an official finish, and bused back to Courmayeur. Only six runners completed the entire course.

Beat was disappointed, as he was finally starting to feel good. Beat truly loves the long game in these events, and he was sad he didn't get a chance to close it out. But he has run into Courmayeur plenty of times, and he understood why the race organization had to make that undoubtedly difficult decision.

I wondered if this might be an impetus to coax Beat into planning more self-supported adventures, where you don't have worry about cut-offs or cancellations. He's excited about the prospect, but there's almost no doubt that he'll return to the Tor des Geants — and I probably will too, someday. 


  1. TDG called off! That must have been crazy conditions. Beat once again is the trooper. Amazing!

  2. One day, one day when I have enough courage I will join you.....Well done Beat !!!

  3. Great write up and pictures, thanks! I predict Beat will maintain his senatori status at the TDG for many years, longer than anyone else.
    Jill, that Shepard saw that you do not properly use your center of gravity on steep slopes. It was so clear that he felt compelled to give you a teaching moment. The difference between traversing a steep slope by keeping your center of gravity directly over your points of contact, and with slightly leaning into the hill because your mind tells you if feels safer, is the difference between feeling sure footed and feeling perpetually awkward with frequent slips. Maybe you're not as uncoordinated as you think. Maybe you just need to convince your mind not to be afraid and illogically conservative. Tell your noodle that you are going to optimize your center of gravity with every step or scramble even if it seems a little more exposed. This totally applies to mountain biking too btw. Commitment and confidence to properly use your center of gravity vs. playing it safe and being prepared for the (inevitable) falls.

    1. Absolutely. These are techniques I already logically understand, but resist when I'm facing steep slopes and this fear that I'm about to fall forward into empty space (thus leaning into the mountain, away from my own center of balance.) That short interaction with the shepherd really did provide an "ah-ha"moment, because with a little mental effort to resist my inclinations, I could feel a real shift in the security of each footstep, which in turn boosted my confidence, and thus willingness to let go. Better traction, better speed, and less falling down in the exact way I injured myself in last year's TDG. But descending is certainly something I need to practice more, because it still takes way too much energy and focus just to reign in my fear.

  4. Great writeup Jill! Sorry my wet sweaty shoes marked out your car ;p I will mace them in future before they meet you :)

  5. PS manked, not marked. Screw you, spellchekc!

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  7. Amazing place! Perfect for mountain riding. We are planning to go there next year!


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