Thursday, September 15, 2011

Italy, day four

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.

Italy, day three

I am falling far behind on my vacation picture posting. Between my travels between Tor des Geants checkpoints to support Beat and exploring trails myself, I've been on the move almost continuously since Sunday. I have a few hours here before I try to meet Beat and the last life base, about fifty kilometers from the race finish. He's battling foot pain and stomach issues, but it otherwise moving strong and is a few hours ahead of his 2010 pace. I'll post more about the race in the next few days.

On Saturday morning, Beat, Steve and Harry were entrenched in last-minute preparations ahead of the Sunday start, and wanted us out of their hair. Martina and I mapped out a loop following the Trail du Mont Blanc, looping around a higher ridge to Col Sapin and back to town on the other side of the bowl.

We were feeling a bit silly as we headed up the steep trail to the refugio, and joked with fan-girl gushing about "following Killian's footprints" on the UTMB. I packed a full "ultralight" overnight pack with a sleeping bag, mat, bivy, warm winter clothing, food, lights and three liters of water to test my Raidlight pack against steep hiking and running. It probably weighed somewhere in the range of twenty pounds, but I didn't even really notice the weight against the fantastic morning weather and beautiful scenery. I even ran about two miles along the ridge and back. The experiment boosted my confidence about the prospect of "fastpacking," or actually running while carrying full self-support gear.

Livestock is ubiquitous in these mountains. I think Alps cows are happy cows, which would explain why the yogurt and gelato is so much better here than it is in the States.

Heading down a minor peak to Col Sapin, at 8,500 feet elevation. We came back in time to join the boys for their pre-race meeting and pasta party, and met a contingent of North American friends including Anne Ver Hoef from Anchorage (who I know through winter racing) and Angela from Calgary, who I spent a week with during my Maah Dah Hey camping trip in May. It was a full reunion of ultra friends, and everyone was excited for Sunday morning.
Sunday, September 11, 2011

Italy, day two

Beat and I are sharing an apartment with three of our friends, Steve and Harry, who also are running in the Tor des Geants, and Martina, who is joining me in a supportive role for the guys while we indulge in freelance hiking and copious amounts of Italian delicacies. It's a tiny apartment with one small bathroom, and we've all settled into it like the bickering family we almost are. Our Italian neighbors are endlessly friendly, always inviting us over for coffee and assuring my race-nervous boyfriend and friends that "You, you men are the real men."

On Friday Beat, who was supposed to be tapering, was not too keen on another 6,000 feet of climbing for the day, but we wanted to get up into the mountains. Steve and Harry joined us on an indulgent ride up the Mont Blanc gondola. The little box swept us up the impossible cliffs and across a glacier to a station built into the rocks at 3,840 meters, the Aiguille du Midi Chamonix.

It was a gorgeous day, and the view from our little box was jaw-dropping. I prefer to work for my views, but I can't deny that Mont Blanc is one of the most incredible places I have ever had the privilege to visit.

We peered down into crevasses and expressed envy for the ant-sized trekkers making their way across the glacier. I actually brought my ice ax and crampons in hopes that I could explore a bit of the glacier while the guys ate lunch, but the access from the gondola station was too perilous to go it alone. Read: Incredibly exposed knife ridge, less than a foot wide, with death drops on both sides. Every trekker we saw traversing that ridge was using ropes, and I am hardly an experienced mountaineer. Oh well. Next time I visit Mont Blanc, I vowed, I will be more experienced and prepared, and I will start from the bottom and climb to the top.

I joined the guys for lunch at this fancy French restaurant called 3840, which is the elevation of the gondola station in meters. It's a fun experience to dine on wild mushroom soup and delicious five-cheese pasta at 12,000 feet, looking out the window at a snow-swept moonscape punctured by jagged rocks. I highly recommend it to anyone, especially those of us who are used to huddling in the wind and trying to use thick mittens to stuff frozen Pop Tarts in our mouths in these types of places. It's a strange but wonderful cultural experience.

Looking down toward Chamonix, France, about 9,000 feet below. Auguille de Midi Chamonix sits right on the border of Italy and France, one of those places where they actually paint a white line that you can hop across singing, "Now I'm in Italy. Now I'm in France."

Looking down the glacier toward Italy.

Mont Blanc, at 4,810 meters (15,782 feet) is the highest peak in the Alps. What an incredible mountain.

I can't wait to go back, human-powered next time.