Tor des Geants 2017
Two weeks and a bit since crossing that beautiful – Bellissima – finish line in Courmayeur, Italy. Feeling little surges of energy and looking back, gratefully, at memories and pictures. Almost like childbirth, I’ve been around long enough to recognize that this is one of those experiences where details will be stripped and feelings left in their place. On paper, here are some of my quickly fading memories, thoughts and feelings…
The TOR, TdG, Tor des Geants
is, officially, 330 km (200+ miles), with 24,000 meters (78,700 ft) of climb and an equal descents over 26 mountain passes surrounding the d’Aosta Valle, in Northern Italy. Like all things Italian, directions, distance, and time are a little loosey-goosey. Take for example that our official cross-sectional elevation guide shows 338.6 km, and that anyone out there with a GPS watch (or three) revealed 31,000 meters (101,000+ ft of climb and equal descent), and, that the race started 17 minutes late (this year – last it was more…). Before you assume I am racist against Italiani … take a step back, please … I AM 50% Italian, so believe you me…I get it.
I chose the TOR for multiple reasons: 1) as said, I am 50% Italian, my father hailing from a tiny town in NE Italy – one hour train ride north of Venice – called San Quirino. 2) the distance enamoured me 3) my coaches’ excitement didn’t hurt 4) the timing felt as right as it could ever feel.
First I had to “win the lottery”. Amazingly, not only did I, but my American friend, Michael Hensen, did as well. With limited numbers accepted from each country (I was one of 6 Canadians, the only female, and oldest of the lot) and Michael one of 16 from USA, of 850+ competitors drawn, he calculated that our chances of attending together were some ridiculously low number. I’m terrible at math…and prefer to believe it was just simply fate 😉
It was a 2 year plan: I had to recover from an early season broken foot in 2016, tackle the Fat Dog (124 miles) right off that (a skimpy 6 weeks actual run training), ski my guts out/run “a bit” over the 2016/17 winter season, get the TdG lottery ticket, then tackle four training races before the TOR.
The first, a short one in Whistler, I managed to trip on probably the only technical section. Flying like Superman, I “landed” like a splatted bug on both wrists. One cast and one splint later…I was up sheep creek again. Thanking my stars that it was only wrists and not a lower body part, we kept at it: a 50 Mile race over the border, another local 50 km, and finally, a 100 Km one in Colorado to test my altitude mettle. Which I failed, miserably, at.
But…like all failings, they can lead to the best discoveries. You just gotta get back up! Fortunately, this discovery of my complete ineptitude at racing at elevation (CO was between 10,000 and 12,000 ft) … in spite of expert scientific coaching advice and experience, and a week acclimatizing … lead to a friend of a friend giving me tips on elevation from his Himalayan mountain climbing buddies. Let’s just say it served me well at the TOR, which tops out at nearly 11,000 ft. Nuff said on that.
It takes a Village
Boy, does it ever. Although many of us try to downplay our dedication to the sport, not wanting to bring attention to the inordinate amount of selfish time we need to take from our adult roles as worker bees, parents, spouses … without a (mostly 😉 supportive spouse and kids and coworkers, creative ways to make the time (rising at 4, for example), and a willingness to spend every spare nickel (left behind by kids, etc.) on all things running, adventures like this would never happen.
My coaches, Eric Carter and Gary Robbins: first and foremost, are my number one inspiration. So encouraging, so diplomatic. As elite athletes themselves, these two men embody fair play, thinking positively and out of the box. I turn 57 in a few weeks: with neither talent nor youth, nor a long competitive history … hey … where I’ve gone boggles my mind. I am so grateful. The perfect blend of nurture/tough love, they don’t tolerate whining, and are not afraid to turn me back around when I get off course. At times, when necessary, they send me flying headfirst to where I fear to go. They have a stable of amazing athletes. I’m old small fry, but they make us all feel equally special. Always a very safe place to always return to. The TOR? Hell Yes!
Although naturally a bit of a social loner, I’ve met so many like-minded friends along the way. It makes the “road” much more enjoyable. Some, I only see at races, some only on FB, and some actually out there on the trails. Steve in PG, Fiona in Van, the Capra group, my Ridgeline group, to name a few. Michael H. and I met on-line (no, not that kind of on-line 😉 and he paced me through my first 100 Miler. We’ve been fast friends since and it was amazing to have experienced most of the TOR with him.
Crew. People do the TOR without crew. I have done many events without crew. But the TOR…well, it’s Big. My MAC (Most Awesome Crew) included my long-suffering husband, Michael R., who originally planned to do it alone (maybe with help of Italian relatives). Fortunately, two angels flew right at us: Jay and Glenn. University friends, these guys unselfishly flew thousand of miles only to spend 1100 km chasing around the spaghetti bowl roads of Aosta Valley and mountains. Michael drove, Jay was the director, social media expert and brains of the operation, while Glenn handled photo/movie production, and entertained all with his Big Bell.
Later on, Michael H’s wife, Sarah, and good friend, Troy, joined the (aka) Merry Group of Madmen. They came at a good time. Things were getting tough. We all needed backup and Troy and Sarah – ultra runners themselves – were exactly what we needed. They had a good time: pasta, pizza, vino, views. Or at least they never let on otherwise. They saw us at our best, and our worse. They forced us to smile when we wanted to fetal position it, they never let us down or gave us a way out. They changed our batteries, pushed us along when necessary, gave us never ending support. The list of restrictions for crew, and the location of the bases was difficult, but they just flew with it. I am forever grateful.
My husband, Michael R.: probably no one pays the price more than the spouse. Iron or ultra or golf nerd, all the same. Michael and I get a Sunday morning together maybe once…a year. Mine is long past used to waking up alone. Although he has his fair share of being annoyed with me, he is the first to brag, first to want to pack up and accompany me on adventures, first to stay back with kids if he must. I love you, Honey.
Our brats: two teens, Daria (17) and Liam (15). I really don’t think I trained any more for this event than any others, but I guess I need to use my kids as a reality check. Heard from Liam (through Michael): “Does Mom have to run so much?” Probably because I wasn’t there to ferry him around to friends so much, or maybe because our holidays in USA and Italy were planned around races… Yeah. It kind of spills into all areas…
Dana and Juli, and Nikki: Thank you for your advice. As past Geants I have such respect for you. Why didn’t you tell me it would be so tough? Grazie Mille. XOXOXOXO
The best laid plans…
Gary and Eric laid out the
Gary and Eric laid it out. Not too much, not too little. “Half the field will arrive at the start either injured or overtrained”, Gary cautioned. If nothing else I am obedient. Mission accomplished this time. Arrived at the start in “perfect” shape. Yay.
The Sleep Plan:
Gary laid out the sleep plan. Based on his years of adventure racing with teams, he first of all asked me how long I planned to be out there, to which I quickly responded, “under 150 hours would be pretty damned awesome”. (150 hours is the cutoff) So he gave me a plan for X hours of sleep per night, “Not just for the sleep. As important is getting your feet off the ground, your legs up.” He reminded me that this would be difficult: difficult to let other racers go by, difficult with adrenaline, difficult because of restrictions as to where/how long you could sleep depending on where you landed up. There were cutoffs to meet, restrictions of 2 hour sleep in smaller Rifugios, many different opinions. I decided to follow Gary’s advice, and planned (wholeheartedly) to sleep at each of the 6 major life bases, plus some at smaller Rifugios (huts with limited, if any sleep accommodation, and some food/water). When I actually put the plan to a map, I discovered I would, after 2 days, have to sleep during day hours and spend most of the final nights on the hoof. Yes, this worried me, but trust between my coaches and myself was strong.
The Nutrition Plan:
We didn’t discuss this much. This is not usually an issue for me. It was a niggling concern… but I mostly brushed aside instincts. I carried 2,000 calories in Perpetuem/day and planned to stuff my face at every food bin there was. Usually, eating was not a problem for me, in spite of the face that I (and Michael H.) are vegans. I spoke with a vegan Geant, who said it wasn’t easy, but doable. I was very familiar with real Italian food and was quite the spaghetti bender, if I don’t mind saying so myself. Spaghetti three times a day? No problem. Tuscan bread dry? No problem. Olive Oil? Pour it on. Espresso…and did we say wine? I was also seduced by stories of being able to “ask behind the counter” for other goodies. BUT…it turned into my biggest obstacle. It almost took me out of the event, but more on that later.
On we press…
Getting ready for big events makes me a bat-shit crazy mad woman. The Control Freak takes over. Between Michael H. and I, we even tried to control the weather. Freaking each other out with the weather forecast (for days) of rain/snow (the WORST combo possible) we fussed, repeatedly checked different forecasts, tried to sooth/bluff each other, fussed some more and searched/purchased every possible piece of expensive gear we didn’t already have to handle it. And yeah, I “secretly” hoped for a cancellation if snow made anything but skis a death sentence. I was nervous – very nervous – but Coaches just chuckled on…”at least you have good winter gear”. Like I said: no whining.
in the end was as perfect as it could be. Fortunately for us, the weather shifts in patterns similar to Whistler. It was hot the first day (later I was to discover my first peeling arms from sunburn in decades). It was cold at night (- 15C, I hear). I was almost blown off a bluff. There was snow one night. But I had the stuff: Gortex jacket, and pants, puffy, fleece, guide gloves, toque, layers, hand warmers. In their wisdom, the Italians has a long list of required items you must carry with you at all times. I was randomly checked 2X and now I get it. Those climbs and descents with a little ice/snow and “no miss” passes…well, a few ounces more on your back, over death, now sounds damn good to me. We dodged a bullet. The day after we left it snowed 40 cm at one of the bases and continues to do so.
The Start line
We started 17 minutes late (Italians – time) amongst much fan fare on that beautiful crispy September 10 day. We ran through the absolutely gorgeous ski town of Courmayeur right into the first uphill, a couple of hundred meters from where we had spent the last week (more on accommodation later). Only Jay and Michael were at the start and I am sure they were glad to get rid of our anxious asses.
Days One through Three
Day 1 was a reality check. Three passes. Michael and I declared the toughest 50 Km we ever did. Until day 2, which was our New toughest ever 50 Km. We slept according to Gary’s plan. Slept hard. Unlike the declarations of so many around us at the start – that we would not be able to sleep because of the adrenaline rushing through our veins – I slept hard and fast. Not quite as long as I had hoped because it was disorienting in the life bases, and took time to eat, get organized, etc. Cot to cot, no privacy, light and noisy with no place to lay out/dry your stuff in most cases, it took a bit of discipline, eyeball covers and time to get down and get out. Michael R. said the bases stunk like locker rooms. 800 men? Yeah, I guess so…
Day 1 – we took the exact amount of time I predicted. Soaring views, plunging precarious descents, mellow mountain fields, below, with gussied up cows and their jingling bells. Our first night at Valtournenche. The welcoming embrace of MAC. Feeling good.
Day 2 – climbs so steep we gasped just looking at the faint thin threads winding up the mountain ahead of us. “No Miss” catwalks. Ropes and teetering rocks. Felt the cutoff nipping at our heals. Sleep/crash at Cogne, a town so pretty MAC didn’t want to leave. Feeling super-human.
I had come to realize that over here an interesting phenomenon was occurring. I was being treated with special respect. The number of calls, the number of compliments, the way people repeated my name “Vittoria” Romanin (Thank you, Mom and Dad, for giving me Nonno’s name) and Canadese. I was a woman. I was from Canada. I had an Italian name. Michael H. certainly noticed it, “Never travelled with a Rock Star before.” Now here’s a country where they know how to treat a lady. Heehee…pretty sure that’s why I couldn’t turn the smile off. A girl has to please her fans ;D
Day 3 was hard. Very hard. Even for a Rock Star. My buddy, Michael H., was hurting. Favouring an old achilles injury lead to further injury at the front of his foot. It was a near “death march” getting into Donnas, the third Life Base at 151 km. Weighing heavily on Michael’s mind was his decision to “cut me loose”. Arriving at hot, noisy, crowded Donnas we had made the difficult decision to separate. Troy and Sarah had arrived. Michael H. now had is crew. I found a bed and crashed. Hot, noisy, this is the place where the majority of the field was rumoured to fall. I now see why. I was distressed at leaving Michael H. under these circumstances, but I knew there was no other way. It was shitty. He was so talented. This was not fair.
Just sleep, Vic. Just sleep.
Days Four through Five
I headed out about 10 p.m., Day 4. As luck would have it, an American, David, who we had chatted with earlier, was heading out too. We were both happy for the company. I was feeling pretty good. The climb was the usual: steep and at times treacherous. It was good to chat with this new found friend. A backcountry ski expert with his own shop… the conversation was so good the miles flew by. But…my new friend was hurting. By the top of that first peak we parted and met much later…
Day 4 started out well enough… There were many of the usual “false summits”. And “false endings” (you thought you were at the top until you rounded the corner and found, lo and behold, more.) This course is also nasty heading downhill, particularly in that just when you make it all the way back down “to hell”, someone inevitably sends you straight back up another 12 km over another “little pass”, AKA a vertical shit show, until you hit the real hell (excuse me… I mean Life Base).
I was also starting to reel from the reality of limited vegan food options. IF I was ever to do this again, I would need a proper Nutrition Plan. I would need to practice and I would need help from crew. From past blogs, I assumed the food choices would be plentiful. Usually, I can eat myself around any table, I assured myself. BUT the tables had been “standardized” this year. My options were white spaghetti with plain tomato sauce, occasional real fruit bits and no-cal salad, coffee, water, sometimes polenta, dry tuscan bread, olive oil, dates and dried apricots and not much more. Everything else was laced with animal. I just could not do it. After 3 days, my mind and body started to revolt. Michael H. was fine…guess it’s just the prima donna in me. Weakened me and almost took me out. Live and learn – next time a plan.
This was the case for me at Niel, a beautiful mountain stop. I honestly thought it was the life base, Gressoney. Wrong. All of a sudden, time was beginning to mean nothing. I was having difficulty eating. My Perpetuem intake had dropped to half. My loving husband – after a big hug – said, “you only have 12 Km to go!” Big stupid grin on his face. I almost decked him right then and there. “You’re kidding.” Gleefully and oh so helpfully, “Here – eat! I brought you some polenta!!” Trying not to let my Medusa out, I knew I had to leave. Leave now. Up the 10,000 steps and 6 vertical km (think Grouse Grind/BCMC X 3), over some ridiculous farmer’s field to some stupid refugio and then back down. 12 Km of pure pissed off-ness. To say my mood had deteriorated would be an understatement.
Day 5 – I slept at Gressoney. I only know this because I remember leaving in the morning feeling better with the sleep. Not great. But better. I had started to get those infamous “mouth sores”. Not actual sores, but sore tongue, and funny almost chemical taste. Wish I could just puke and get it over with.
I met up with a young Spanish woman. We spent many hours together. Almost got blown off a bluff together. Separated, then fell in line again. In the end, we parted at the next life base. After a good sleep, I felt better. Determined to buck up and not depend on anyone for the rest of the race.
Days 6 and 7
Day 6: 239 km into it. As mentioned above, having trouble eating. I was already feeling weaker, but the sun helped, and I knew I was well into it now. My low points had forced me to consider the almost inevitable: I was ready to accept a DNF. After all, I was way in over my head. Nice try, Vic, but you are a wannabe. With this in mind, I had nothing to lose. I was going to try to pick it up, even if I dropped. And guess what happened? I ran almost smack into Michael H.
Michael H. had chosen NOT stop at Donnas. He had travelled almost continuously, since then, strategizing his injury would not allow him to move very quickly. I was soooo happy to see him. We rejoined forces, along with his new companion from India, a young brash Indian lawyer (bit of a Star and bringing ultra running to the huge exotic country). The amazing thing is that Michael had started to regain his pace. I suspect whatever was hurting him had now “died” – or that part of his brain had – and he was able to force through. We were all tired. The boys did not have much of a long sleep plan: they would sleep when we had to. I was a pack animal by then. Following along blithely.
We slept in someone’s bedroom – at their Rifugio for 20 minutes, we slept on a church floor – clothes and shoes on – hat over eyes, for 40 minutes.
I don’t even remember the order exactly, but we did end up at the last life base – Ollomont – eventually. 287.2 Km. I did not have to reason too hard with the boys to sleep. I could not eat. Michael R. was getting in my face. My crap was everywhere and no one could help me find it. I am not sure how long we slept. Maybe an hour? Michael H was somewhere. Glenn and Jay reassured me I would make it. Not sure if any of them believed it at that point, but they were kind. And kind of afraid of me, I think. Apparently, it stunk. It was…yep…a low, lower, lowest point.
MAC told me stories afterwards, but apparently, I was in as good as shape as it got. Misery everywhere. I was simply not well fed. There were worse off.
Day 7: 287 km into it. One way or the other, this was going to finish. I confessed to Michael H. that I had accepted that I might not make it, and was ok with that. He violently retorted, “Well I am Not.” OK, well then… We simply moved forward. We had a cat nap at a way-high refugio and a bite to eat.
A very touching memory: one of the guides in this little refugio was grinding fresh oranges. It was the first thing I had seen in two days that looked even slightly appetizing. I asked if I could have one, then proceeded to bite straight into it, peel and all, starving dog style. He grabbed it from me and proceeded to peel it with his knife, breaking sections perfectly. It was the most delicious fruit I have ever tasted and…I may have developed a little crush on mountain guides from that point on…
Moving forward, stopping once in a while for Michael’s foot, and tolerating our young companion’s well meaning advice (he has no idea how close to decapitation he came at one point when he pointed out that I was choosing not to eat enough) we three moved on. It was beautiful – no doubt – but it needed to end.
We slept again at the last Rifugio before the last climb. Last sweet climb. I forced myself a bowl of penne drowned in olive oil. Suck it up, buttercup. The morning was cold. Ice over mud and steep. Step, slide. Replant step, slide. Over and over. The top 1/3 was so steep there were ropes and 3 mountain guides. They must have guessed that our minds were almost lost. A guide billy-goated down to me: “step here and here” qui e qui. “You don’t need the ropes.” …oh mama mia… Crush.
We were up and over! Up and Over!!! Time to Git’r Done. The Kid left us, in the dust. Only 30 km of treacherous downhill to go. We were having such a good time we decided to … Get Lost. Yes, we did. Thank goodness for another Angel. Honest to God Angel, because our gooses were almost cooked. A blonde Italiana, hiking briskly uphill asked us where we were off to? She pointed us back – UP – we turned around, beetled our way back, hardly cursing at all. So many people had passed. I don’t know how many hours it took us off, but WTHell, at least we had a chance to reprieve ourselves. I had begun to hope again.
Some jerks had began to remove flags. It was in the playbook: we were warned this could happen. We were supposed to know our route and recommended GPS guidance. On we go. I could smell the barn. But in usual TOR fashion, it was just the cows. Not the actual barn. That was still 30 Km away. Like a bad movie where the end of the hall never comes. And the cruelest thing: the last 30 Km was not all treacherous downhill, it was undulating ups, downs between treacherous downhills. Is there a cranky theme here?
Still, I could beat my body on. I knew it. I wasn’t injured, but if I didn’t get food I could be dead. Needed to get to the finish. Michael had started to hallucinate. Then – then – then – the (almost) unspeakable happened: Michael H. decided he needed a nap. A friggin’ nap. Now. I could feel the cutoff flames at our heels. I wouldn’t let him. So we did what friends do. He swore at me, “Don’t tell me what to do. I can do whatever the F**k I want!” It didn’t even shake me. I really cared about this dude at this moment and knew – remember he told me – that he was NOT ok with not finishing. Instead of scolding or ditching – as I was prone to do naturally – I reminded him that I really cared about him and couldn’t let him stop. I had seen him help others along the way, and now he needed the help. I was so glad to be there with him, to help him for a change.
A switch flipped and we kept going. We ran into a couple of other annoying unmarked (jerks) forks, but we worked it out. Our energy was starting to come back. We were laughing and joking. We were talking real food, and it was NOT spaghetti. This time we could see the barn.
Sweet, Sweet Courmayeur
Yes, we were here!!! Heros’ welcome. Interview. Photos. Joy. Hugs. Wine.
148 hours and change. We walked onto the finish matt side by side. Again, Italian time meant nothing. Michael’s time was recorded as 22 seconds faster than mine. I guess that was payback for them practically throwing him off the finish line to interview me: haha, the Canadian Woman.
We were two of 53% to finish before the 150 hour cutoff.
Both Michael and I had some leg swelling. Both lost weight.
Michael’s injury is still undiagnosed, but there is a suspected stress fracture, at the time of this writing.
Otherwise, I had not a rub, not a blister, not an injury. My glasses kind of bruised my nose and temples, I guess 😉
As an aside, everyone suffered to some degree. Some more, some less, but I would say Michael and I were some of the more fortunate ones.
Everyone made it to the After/Awards party the next day. It was amazing. Italians love to Par-tay. Love to Celebrate. Love the pomp and ceremony. It didn’t matter if you completed in 67 hrs, or 150 or 1/4 into it: it was the Heart of the Athletes that was celebrated. The ceremony was long for our long-suffering MAC, but selfishly, amazing for the runners. Rockin’ music, everyone recognized…in three languages. Lights, cameras, action. Met up with so many folks we had met along the way. I truly hope our life paths cross again.
My sleep was messed up for several nights. Though I slept hard and long, was haunted by PTSD-like symptoms. I had vivid dreams, so vivid I could not differentiate between reality and dream. My whole body was throwing itself back into climbs. I felt my full core working the climbs, my muscles clenched and released, arms, shoulders, breath. I was back on the mountain. That’s since passed. I have been sleeping long and hard and well.
I put compression socks on the first night and by the time I woke up the next morning, I swear the fluid has squished into my face. Yes, this was me. Just before the Party.
I could not eat much for 3 days afterwards. Lost nearly 15 pounds. Scared myself looking into a mirror. Mouth so sore. Horrible taste. 3 days after, my appetite returned and I have not stopped eating since. Lost some serious muscle, but we will get’r back.
Debriefing with Coaches: So positive. Discussed what went right: dodged the weather bullet. Perfectly trained. No blisters. No injuries. Beat the 150 hr cutoff, one of the lucky 53%. For the most part, the sleep plan was wise and prudent, even though I kind of screwed it up in the end. By sleeping I avoided hallucinations – yeah. And probably sleep walking myself off a cliff. The eating thing…well, we live and learn. Never again will this be an issue. Finally, they reminded me that for something this brutally beautiful…there will always be something. I am grateful. Thank you, Gary and Eric!!!
Getting bursts of energy. Feeling pretty darned good. So thankful. So humbled. So happy to have had the privilege of taking this on. So grateful for good friends, loving family and health. I am a lucky woman. Looking forward to snow…
The Tor des Geants
In a nutshell:
- stunningly beautiful
- well organized, and over the top support from the community
- steep and technical, infamously long and difficult downhills 8 to 30 km
- 67 countries represented. Lottery.
- based out of Courmayeur. Top notch accommodation, gorgeous Mont Blanc views.
- new record: young Spaniard, Javi, 67 hours and some change. Superhuman. Jornet comrade, I assume.
- if you are a vegan or gluten intolerant…plan carefully. I am not kidding.
- My crew (MAC) was the best on the planet: I can never thank Glenn and Jay enough. You make me cry with gratitude at your willingness to put yourself in the way of sleep deprivation, car sickness, jet lag and wine hangovers. Troy and Sarah – it was such a pleasure – thank you!!! Michael R. I love you.
- Our accommodation and hosts were absolutely amazing. Message me if you want details, though I plan to put pic on this site.
- Valle d’Aosta is a beautifully cool mix of Italy, France, Switzerland as borders have shapeshifted. So Euro. Inhabited by amazing kind, fit, exuberant people. It was an honour to borrow their trails and mountains for a short while.
- You will meet the finest people. In my case it was tall and very handsome Dutch men (you know who you are), gorgeous Spanish girls, the most Awesome Americans ever, dreamy eyed Italians, talented confident Indians, spicy Mexicans…you name it. They got it. Ultra nerds with a cool Euro twist. Like I said, the bad memories are fading, and this is all I will remember…
- as a woman, you may sit at 13% of the field. Not bad odds 😉 Italians love their cars, soccer and…women.
- And finally…Respect, and a tear, for a Fallen Geant and his family. May you Rest in Peace, Yang Yuan.
It’s a wrap. Thank you for Walking through this Giant adventure with Us ;D