Feeling Ultra Good
Running - and Enduring - the Tor Des Geants 2017
When Eric and I decided to run the Tor des Geants ultra in the Italian Alps we knew that it would be extraordinary. It is one of the hardest adventure runs in the world: over 200 miles and 80,000 feet of uphill running (more than 3 times Mt. Everest)! We love ultras for the adventure and the solidarity we have with other runners, the volunteers who make the experience possible, and the spectators who come out in the middle of nowhere, at all hours of the day and night and in all kinds of weather to cheer us on. And we were inspired to extend that sense of solidarity to do something for a cause bigger than ourselves. That’s why we decided to do the Tor to raise money for the organization Free to Run.
Free To Run’s mission is to use sports, running, and outdoor adventure to empower girls and women from conflict-affected communities and refugee camps, building on the social cohesion and confidence that comes from running to provide the critical coping mechanisms that reduce their vulnerability.
It seems somehow small to talk about “us” and “our story” in the context of these girls and women, who have the courage and the endurance to wake up every day, put one foot in front of the other and walk (and often run!) into the headwinds of daily violence and discrimination. That is real endurance. They are the true giants!
But our story is now intertwined with theirs. It is a story of optimism, hard work, solidarity and quality equipment (thank goodness for good gear!).
The Tor des Geants is incredibly well organized, and they don’t fool around when it comes to the mandatory equipment. Every participant is required to carry with them at all times: snow spikes/crampons, waterproof pants and jacket, hat, pant/tights, long sleeve microfleece, 2 emergency blankets, strapping tape, 2 headlamps with battery change and a food reserve and a backpack to hold it all. The whole kit must weigh about 5kg. I was thrilled that the Ultimate Direction Jenny pack (11 liters) I bought (based a on the recommendation of other female runners) held everything. It was a tight squeeze, but the pack fit well, felt light despite all the contents and did not rub in any way.
The TdG organization gives each runner a medium-sized duffel bag into which they can put all their changes of clothes, food reserves, batteries and other essentials. The bag follows each runner from life base to life base. It is an incredible logistical feat on their part and a lifesaver for runners who do not have crew to support them.
We organized all our changes of clothes, food reserves, lamps, etc. in individual Ziploc bags marked with the name of each life base to help us avoid digging through the sack and trying to decide what to take and what to leave at each aid station (another trick learned from reading the blogs of other runners).
We were so fortunate to have our sons, Anthony and Alan, there it crew for us. We’ve never run with a crew before, and it was both a game-changer and a life-saver. They were super well prepared and 100% focused. We had already established a timetable with the times we expected to reach each life base and a list of equipment changes we would need. But with the constantly changing weather and the unexpected periods of fatigue and of feeling good, we were soon off our expected times, arriving an hour later or an hour earlier! But they were there, ready to pick up the duffel bag, get us something to eat and drink, fill our water bottles, change lamp batteries, make sure we slept, got massaged, took care of blisters, and applied sunscreen. They had the weather forecast for the next section and more importantly, encouraging words.
Critical Gear and Food
Eric and I are not new to ultras. In all, we’ve run the Grand Raid de la Reunion /Diagonale des Fous about 10 times in total as well as many other ultras in our Indian Ocean region. This means that we’ve had the chance to learn from our mistakes! Probably the two most important things we tried to remember is to eat, eat, eat and to take care of any minor foot issues immediately. Fortunately, the teams of physical therapists and podiatrists were outstanding at each life base. Our feet came through pretty well, compared to a lot of others’ thanks to these folks.
We are really thankful that it didn’t rain. Wet feet are an entirely different story! We had changes of shoes on hand, but I stayed in my Hoka Speedgoat shoes and Eric in his Salomon Sense Ultras the entire 330 km.
The Tor is known for having great food: fresh hot pasta, cheese, ham, pastries, sometimes even yogurt and ice cream. Still, I thought we were prepared for the food fatigue of eating the same thing for five or six days. I prepared peanut butter sandwiches on whole wheat bread, Snickers, trail mix, jelly beans, granola bars and gels. Here, I do have to give a shoutout to Huma gels, who make an amazing product. The best gels ever. As for the rest, my mouth became super sensitive super fast. My tongue felt swollen and sensitive. Anything sweet or dry irritated the inside of my mouth. So, needless to say, a lot of the food we had wasn’t appealing. And as for swallowing a peanut butter sandwich, forget about it. The soup, yogurt and Sprite, for which I developed an unnatural craving, became the most appreciated foods. But it was about 180km, just above the life base at Niel, in the middle of the night, on top of nowhere, in a little shack with a bench and a hibachi that a couple of elderly Italian men served us up a grilled sausage, potatoes and hot tea that was the best meal of the Tor! Grazie mille!
In terms of equipment, the most important item for both of us were our Patagonia Nano Air hooded jackets. The weather turned very cold just before the start of the Tor, and we had -6 Celsius with the wind chill at the higher altitudes. Coming from a warm climate like Madagascar, those temperatures had me really scared before the start of the race. But those jackets were lifesavers. We were toasty warm and didn’t have to worry about stopping to warm up at each life base (aid station) like some of the other runners. Even though they are not windproof, I don’t remember being bothered by the strong winds as we passed the cols at the highest elevations either. I also had a pair of Mountain Hardwear waterproof gloves on most of the time, and I can’t remember a moment that I had cold hands, except for the time that I took them off and my hands turned bright red and were very painful almost immediately. If I didn’t have to think about cold hands, this means those Mountain Hardware gloves did a helluva good job! I stayed covered up most of the time, even at lower altitudes where it was warmer. I think your body kind of freaks out, and I didn’t mind staying wrapped up like a polar bear, even when it was warm. It was kind of comforting. Weird.
From the outset, Eric and I had great respect for this beast of a race. Even though we run pretty well for two fifty-ish runners, even making a podium occasionally, we had no intention of “racing” the Tor. Leave that to the elites. We decided from the beginning to hike the ups and run the downs, when they weren’t too bouldery. And to do it all together.
We ran and hiked well the first day, but into the first night, Eric struggled with the altitude, and I soon came to realize that the climbs were more beastly than expected. We know how to hike uphill: keep a regular pace, breathe, just breathe, keep it regular until you reach the top. But I realized during the first night that the top never came. I was climbing and breathing and climbing and breathing, but where was the *&!’# col?!
It was after this first night that we decided to tone it back even further. We were going to hike the whole thing and run when we could. This slowed us down from our planned pace, but it was the right mental strategy. We advanced. No injuries. Tired from lack of sleep, but no real muscle fatigue.
Towards the end of the Tor, we were even passing guys that had passed us earlier on. The last 30 km, we were even zooming past tens of runners on the downhill after the Refuge Frassati towards the Refuge Bertone, the last station before the finish line. And it was only after this penultimate downhill that my knee decided it had had enough. Slowly but surely the tendon froze up, and I was reduced to limping along for the last 20 kilometers. But I was even more worried that it would freeze up entirely before the last downhill and I would have to stop. Abandon the Tor! What a drag! Eric was so encouraging. We walked together, talking softly, a little sadly. And we watched a good part of those people that we had flown past hours earlier pass us up. Everyone was nice and had an encouraging word, a compassionate look. We were all in this together and no one was racing.
With the very kind support and warm blankets of the team at the Refuge Bertone, my uncooperative tendon loosened up after about an hour. In the meantime, our super crew sons had joined us. They actually RAN up the last hill, 1,000 meters, to bring the strapping tape for my knee and make sure that we finished. With a knee wrapped up like a Xmas present, all four of us hobbled down the last hill and strolled across the finish line in Courmayeur on Friday evening … only about 20 hours later than our planned finish time. But I wouldn’t change that finish for the world. Joking. Laughing. Enjoying each other’s company. We were all together, the whole family, from the start to the finish. The way it should be.