Two weeks ago (could be three by the time I finish writing) I landed back on earth after my second go (the first being September 2017) at the Italian Tor des Geants (aka TOR330 or TDG or TOR).
Most of you know, by now, that it is an approximate 350 km ultra with about 100,000 foot elevation gain (and equal descent). If I haven’t said it before, Italians are very good at many things, but time, distance, and directions are definitely not on the top (2/3) of the list. Races distances are “ISH”, time is “ish”, and directions are “well, you can blame it on lost in translation”. The TDG website gives different figures from the ITRA (governing body) site, and those numbers vary (vastly) from the GPS figures recorded from our trackers for the 2017 TOR, BUT any way you cut or slice it, it’s a long way up and down, crossing over something like 23 cols (I lost count, and that doesn’t include all the false ones).
To add to the excitement, there have been added three additional events, each starting on different days. These include the truly extreme TOR450 (requires qualifying by completion of the TOR330 in 130 hours or less, takes higher routes with only map/GPS and no trail markings), the TOR 130 (shorter faster version which travels the last approximately 130 km of the TOR330), and the TOR30 (last 30ish km of the TOR330). Participants are chosen by a lottery system: 40% reserved for Italian athletes, while the other 60% shared amongst the rest of the world’s countries. The usual start number is approximately 800 participants, however this year – and next – the number is 1100 to “catch-up” due to race cancellations during the pandemic. This year Canada was given 11 entries, while in 2017, it was 7. You get the idea.
To support athletes (beside their crew if they choose to have any) are Base Vita (life bases or large Aid Stations in community centres) where you can sleep, shower, eat, massage, get medical advice, meet your crew, along with many, many smaller remote refugi (alpine huts, some private, but most open to the hiking/mountain public) which you can grab some food and perhaps some winks. Before the race you are supplied with a yellow large(ish) duffle bag in which you can put whatever you want – and can easily fit – in. This yellow bag is transported from Life Base to Life Base (six plus the start/finish) for you.
There are definite time limits to finish, and tight time cut-offs along the way. It is NOT a stage race where you run a certain number of km per day and then join everyone for the evening feast/sleep tents, then start again the next morning: instead you get to push yourself as hard (and as long) as you deem wise. You decide when to eat/sleep/deal with your demons. When you stop, when you eat, when you sleep, and while you deal with those demons…the clock keeps ticking. Truly dastardly way of getting to a sharp point, I’d say.
The events circle the mountains around the Aosta Valley (Valle d’Aosta), giving a delightful travel experience for both athletes, volunteers, and weary crews on those crazy mountain roads. The whole valley and it’s many villages volunteer, host, cheer, feed, and fully envelop the athletes (and crews/families) from around the world. It is truly amazing to me that Italy was one of the first and hardest hit by COVID-19 (actually nearly crushed) but here they were again: welcoming the world with such hospitality it brings tears to your eyes. It is one Big Freakin’ Spaghetti Eatin’ Odyssey Adventure…and I feel blessed and so very, very lucky to have travelled it’s paths, once again, this year.
As I’ve alluded to some, it is simply amazing to me that I arrived at the start of the race. Not to make it a pity party (I did that on my own time already) but the injury train I have been riding, over the past nearly 2 years, had crushed my confidence completely. The list of injuries included:
- December 2020 – complete rupture (tore off) right ACL, skiing.
- January/February 2021 – start to notice discomfort in left shoulder (MRI eventually showed small tears in rotator cuff and several ligaments)
- December 2021 – left hamstring starts to act up with a vengeance (physio says common to have an injury “on other side” after a serious knee injury, due to changes in biomechanics and compensation).
- May 2022 – hamstring acts up again, but this time with show stopping consequences.
- June 2022 – the stupidest thing of all (a first, even for the coaches)…while washing dishes, I step back…and on…our old cranky ginger cat, Rosie. She laced into my right lower calf/achilles and within a couple of days I was in Emergency and put on 2 weeks of IV antibiotics, followed by a week of oral antibiotics…followed by weeks of trying to get swelling down and mobility back in my right ankle, which of course lead to…dadahhhh….
- July/August 2022 – hamstring, once again, acts up because it AGAIN has to do all the work for a re-broken right side.
Through all of this nearly two years I was cared for by an amazing team. First of all, my Coaches, Gary Robbins and Eric Carter, of Ridgeline Athletics. They directed me through many highs and lows of body and mind with wave after wave of set-backs. They believed in me, kept me focused on the end-game, were ever so patient, and stuck with me through thick and thin. In addition, I lucked upon an amazing physio: Sharni Hargraves, a young very talented professional, who expertly took me through the many repeated highs and lows of my knee, shoulder, butt (hamstring), and achilles. Finally, through loss of a strength trainer during the pandemic and move from Vancouver back to Whistler, I was introduced to a new personal trainer, Jack Murray, who I believe was instrumental in helping to pull together the final pieces of this underweight, strength-training-starved old wreck.
It wasn’t all fun and games (just in case it sounded that way). Once – or often twice a week – physio appointments and all the gym work needed to shore up areas around the injuries, mixed with lots of discouragement, simply from the continued discomfort and repeated plan knock-downs. MRIs and specialist appointments and difficult decisions. These were not illnesses – hence anything but life threatening – but they got into my head as much as my body parts.
With great hesitation and not much success (I see now, though, that they were several of many important little steps), I ran a slow 60 km local event Fall of 2021, followed by a slower 25 km a week or two later. The thing is…I didn’t try to be slow, I just was. It was the best I could do, and that scared me.
Winter of 2021 was a hang-on-by-your-teeth ski season: I skied quite a bit, but my hamstring made for some discomfort, and my knee was anything but fully stable. The rotational forces of ski touring could not be ignored or bypassed. I begrudgingly was fitted for a brace (it helped a lot) but I was seriously nervous every time I went out. Physio continued, running took a back seat for the winter, but in April 2022, I started to run train again. I hate to back down from anything, but boy oh boy…I needed a break if that was to happen. It wasn’t to be.
By the time I ran a 50 miler in June 2022, I finished it, but barely! Congratulations all around as I received my very first DFL (Dead **cking Last). I was so exhausted I could barely walk up the stairs of our hotel and pretty sure I had to lie down on the hall floor so I wouldn’t puke. Yes, this is how NOT in shape I was. The whole race was beautiful but I was wracked with hamstring and shoulder discomfort. It seemed every time we got training again, something else would happen (oh yeah, did I mention early May COVID?)
With the Rosie event, I had to cancel (and lost 1700 bucks on) a running camp and bow out of a hiking trip in the Rockies with my friend, late July/early August 2022. These cancellations, however, enabled me to be close to a medical clinic in case the cat scratch infection blew up again, and get some run training in. The third week of August came quickly: and with just 4 days before the event, Coach decided I should take a crack at the Squamish 50/50 (we were on the fence and I made him decide for me). I did it, and felt much better than I did for the June 50 Miler, but was a full FIVE hours slower than I was my last crack at it. Still, it showed that I could get out there two days in a row. And the bottom line was: if I couldn’t pull off the SQ50/50, there was no hope in hell I could pull off Italy.
So, that’s how it all happened. I had repeated injuries, multiplying insecurities, and plummeting results. By the time I was forced to prepare/pack for Italy, I was absolutely SURE there was no friggin’ way in hell I could do this monster. I was 5 years older, many years more broken (or at least felt that way), and didn’t feel I was even been able to pull off one full decent training block. Basically, I went for my husband, Michael R. – who really needed an Italian vacation – and our promise to our much loved friend, Karen, who had never been overseas and who had recently lost her beloved husband, Danny (Michael’s best friend). They would crew our little ship of fools.
Once I had accepted my fate: I listened to my coach, Gary, who gave me the words I hung onto: “six 60 km days; you can do this in your sleep”, and “don’t leave time on the table”, which meant don’t get wrapped up in anyone else. You do you. Take care of yourself: if you need sleep, get it. If you need food – even if you don’t want food – get it. Be smart. We had no idea if (or when) my hamstring or achilles would act up under the distance and technical terrain I was about to cover: that would be left up to fate now. I understood. That advice was the slight glimmer of hope was what I needed to get my butt to the start.
And, so, it began…
The SQ50/50 was 3 weeks before the beginning of the Tor des Geants. From there, it was a whirlwind of preparation (I had totally procrastinated until then because, well…could not see the point of getting my heart and hands into it when it was unlikely I could “run” it anyway) and final training. Miraculously, both my achilles and hamstring were calming down. Everyone did more than a few Hail Marys. We left for Italy a week(ish) before the start.
Finally landing in Geneva, Switzerland, after a series of flight delays, we stuffed ourselves into our rental car, driving through Switzerland, and France, in about an hour and a half. Unfortunately, we missed the tunnel opening (work closures) from France to Italy, so took a little detour into Chamonix, France. At 1:30 in the morning, after long flights and a bit of a drive, we were searching for a place to crash for the night. A few knocks, and 500 bucks later, we were tucked into beds. In the morning, we slipped through the tunnel. Turn right at the end of it…and hallelujah…you are in Courmayeur, Italy!
We stayed in the same lovely apartment as for the TOR five years ago. Set in the neighbourhood of Dolonne, it was a 5 minute walk from “package pickup” (where you sign in and get all your required stuff for the race, final instructions, etc.) and a 15 minute walk to Courmayeur centre and the race start. If Courmayeur is charming, Dolonne has it in spades. Our Italian hosts, Nelly & Ilario, their two lovely young daughters, and cat, Simon, live on site and rent out two spotless, charming apartments. This year we would take one, and our friend, Michael H. (he and I ran the TOR 5 years ago) and his brother, Robert, would take the other. We simply cannot recommend this accommodation highly enough if you ever have the opportunity to stay in Courmayeur.
The week went quickly: day 2 we set out to drive to the Aid Stations (we shall call all Base Vita and refugi, Aid Stations from here on in) we thought reasonable for crew (Karen & Michael R for me, and Robert for Michael) to get to. Some roads were ridiculously difficult to drive, and some required long walk ins. Neither Karen or Michael R.’s knees could tolerate those, and I didn’t want them so exhausted they couldn’t crew when it really counted. Crewing is very tough work. We saw folks literally driving and working themselves into the ground. Honestly, I think I could not have done what my crew did! And Robert…he was a friggin’ Rockstar too. Renting a sleek black Mercedes sedan, he took that thing to where, likely, no Mercedes had ever gone before…or will ever go again 😉
We gave Karen her first taste of Europe, her first taste of Northern Italy. With pleasure. We went grocery shopping, sampled a few restaurants, did a little hike of a few km at the beginning of the race course, rode the Sky Way (a high tech gondola which links Courmayeur to Mont Blanc higher elevations; it was considered the world’s most expensive gondola installation), definitely feeling the nearly 3500 meter elevation at the top and taking in the glacier views. (When the weather is just right, this gondi connects to another, which takes you over to the french side, into Chamonix.) You know, basically settled in. The weather was beautiful, the towns quiet (definitely shoulder season after the craziness of the summer – and UTMB). In fact, so quiet that we were disappointed that the usual specialty gelato, bakeries, etc. were mostly closed – or had very limited opening hours.
We were kindly invited to a little mountain runners’ “cocktail party” and there, I think, my crew was a little intimidated by the whole euro race scene. Both Michael R and Karen almost exploded when we got home, “Did you feel that energy?!!” At first that was funny to me: I am NOT a social butterfly, but I quite enjoyed this get together. It seemed kind of chill. Yes, there was some blustering about race strategy and loads of experience in the room, but I thought it was friendly and quite “normal”. I think it was just the whole thing: a room full of confident excited people, who look like mountain lions and switch easily through multiple languages. No problem… 😉
72 hours after getting off the plane – I remember the moment – my nose starts to run, and throat starts to scratch. I knew, right then and there, that I had picked up a virus. Michael & Karen were ok, at first. The throat soreness went away, but laryngitis set in and my nose ran like a kindergartener. I went for an easy run with no difficulty. Of course I was thinking, “Well, of course. This is it. The last straw. I have COVID and this is it – the reason I don’t start – let alone finish, the TOR.” But, it was not COVID: it was a miserable, rotten, cold bug, picked up on the plane. During the event, my energy was good, I never had a fever: I just had to be very careful to use lots of Kleenex and dispose of it carefully. As the week went on, my laryngitis worsened and my cough could be annoying, but it never created a fuss at the Aid Stations. In fact, there were more folks coughing from spending time at high altitude cols than anything that came from me. Karen followed suit a couple of days after me. Michael R. missed the bullet entirely.
Karen had never crewed previous to this event. She was an extremely fast starter! Her calm demeanour and no bullshit work ethic had her handling my social butterfly husband with the seriously effective diplomacy. She soon held control of the time table, Aid Stations, actually the whole thing! We spent time going over event details, preparing race nutrition (and strategy), learning how to refill a hydration bladder (my preferred way to hydrate, even though I carry quite a bit of weight). They say we carry our insecurities, and obviously I have quite a few of them. I want to make sure I have 1. enough water 2. enough calories 3. enough warmth 4. enough rain gear. As the event goes on, you can start to compromise…but at your own peril. More on that later. Let’s just say that Michael R. was able to fully concentrate on the roads (and euro drivers) and getting Karen and himself fed and slept. I’d say it was the perfect match.
Race nutrition was a big part of the planning. At the last TOR, I became very run down with calorie deficits. I had food fatigue (common when you eat the same thing over and over again, especially sugary stuff) and just wasn’t able to take enough in. I made it through that TOR, but that was one thing I swore to radically change “next time”. This time around, I brought dehydrated camp food (you just add boiling water and let sit for 15 minutes). When you are hungry, this stuff is actually good, and provides variety from the same old white spaghetti and pure (read acidy) tomato sauce and race “gels” (pure sugar and salt). Easy to pack, easy to prepare, and vegan, we even brought a tiny camp stove to boil water if the Aid Station was too busy to help. Of course, you know what they say about the Best Laid Plans…
Michael H. and Robert arrived the Friday before the Sunday event. A crazy busy life, it was the best they could muster. What I saw was the same Michael H. as last time (pretty much adore him) but leaner, more focused, and hyper-organized. While there was – in his words – very little (ok, no) planning five years ago, this time he had ambitious goals, had put a lot of good miles under his feet and was ready to take it. He had met a young woman on the trails and the two of them planned to make sure they qualified for the 450…just “for the fun of it”. Robert had never crewed before either. We all joked about that, but the truth is he was fantastic out there, too. Just as focused as his brother, it was very impressive and inspiring to watch.
My goal was to try to make it to the half-way point (Donnes Life Base). If I could do that, I knew I had a good chance to dig in and make it all the way through. I HAD a detailed plan five years ago, and I knew to even follow that plan would be ambitious. I now knew that course: long, steep, technical, and at times downright dangerous. As mentioned before, I was five years older, far more broken (5 years ago I would say I was in the best shape of my life), had not been able to “properly” train for a couple of years, and seriously doubted my abilities. I had only been fully discomfort free for a couple of weeks. We had 150 hours (6 days, 6 hours) to complete the course. Last time, Michael H. and I were two of the 52% of athletes to finish the course, making it in about an hour and a half before the race ended. The squeeze was on, big-time.
A couple of nights before the race, I was over-taken by race nerves. Sitting in that charming apartment, finishing dinner and watching the Italian TV covering Queen Elizabeth’s passing, I burst into tears. I had been a nervous wreck, repeatedly meditating and stuffing down my feelings until then. The sadness I felt for the family who had lost their matriarch was the last straw. Karen and Michael were very soothing, and the cry was actually good. I made my husband to PROMISE not to blab about the race on FB. “At least until we see if we make it to Donnes.” (You all know how that went.) I had kept the race under my hat, not daring to jinx it further. I had let those who needed to know – or who I thought might be interested no matter what the result – know where to follow the race. Other than that, there was absolutely no trumpeting… about my impending doom. But, the cry helped. Seeing Michael H. helped. Getting my stuff packed, and all the pre-race planning done helped. There was nothing more but to Git’r Done.
Tre, Due, Uno Vai! Vai! Vai!
Michael H., his friend, Katie, and I had the same very civilized race start time: Noon (the faster kids left with the 10 a.m. wave). Time to wake up, eat, take care of final stuff without rushing, and walk everyone to the start-line. I felt ok: that cry a few nights ago was just what the doctor ordered. Kissed my crew good-bye, and gave Katie & Michael H. a good hug and wished them well as they were seeding themselves closer to the front. I felt calm while I seeded myself near the back. It was a beautiful blue-bird day. Perfect. The Europeans were out in their glory. Just subtle little differences: a little style, a little sexy, a little swagger. Trucker hats here? Nope. Languages to the right and left. I sought some shade and enjoyed that I could eavesdrop, a little, now on the Italians. It was a special moment. Soon enough, the music swelled…and the count-down began. We were off.
The Start runs through Courmayeur. Too fast, of course, which is the euro way. I was glad to be seated further back. The narrow cobblestone walkways spilling out onto the road required some personal space in order to stay upright. Flowing through the Start and then through Dolonne, we 550 of us (or so) bottle-necked to a 20 minute stand-still while “we” sorted that out. Having done this thing before, I knew it was coming. There were times, like this, during the race when I was glad for the experience of having walked this way before. I knew the conga line could be intimidating (patience) and that some folks would move breathtakingly fast when they could make their break. I was in for the long haul and felt no rush. After all, I had bottomed out: what was there to lose at this point? Just breathe, stay upright while moving, eat and drink. Sleep. Repeat. Repeat….
The first couple of days were as expected (the toughest two 50 km mountain runs you will ever do), but completely different as well! The Aid Stations were calmer and more organized than I remember. The terrain was far steeper and more technical than I remember. The route…well…it was not familiar at all! Turns out it was the same route, but race amnesia for these long-haulers was in full play.
Day 3 started to show cracks all around. I saw far too many serious bloody crashes and heard of friends who had dropped. I knew the route into Donnes would be a bitch: it starts out all “sound of music’y”, and ends with an annoying 10 km death march into the hot/crowded Donnes Life Base. I saw young strong French guys swearing up a storm for the heinousness of the last 10 km. You will never really know until you walk that path yourself. But…I had made it to Donnes!!
Hugs and hope all around when I met with my crew. At this point, I knew there was a good chance we could finish, but I had to downgrade all of our expectations, as this was the point where the real work would begin. I looked into their eyes and let them know it could get ugly. Asked them to keep tracking me and be prepared for changes. I actually re-wrapped my feet after a shower, and had a sleep. Donnes was not the hell hole I remembered.
That night I set out from Donnes, for a night of climbing. By total chance, I spotted a young woman, from Alaska, I had met on the trail (pre-race easy hike) the previous week. She was a little off course, and soon we were both together, a little off course. We walked the same bridge twice and had to ask “where the hell are we going?”, when we reached the same little street band entertainment. Two teen Italian teenagers gladly escorted us to the trail markers we had missed, and we were on our way.
I’d say “J” and I quite quickly got into the North American way of making friends on the trail. We started yakking about this and that, and nothing in particular. We solved the world’s problems. You know the old saying, “what is said on the trail, stays on the trail”. Well. It’s not just an old saying. She was a Great climber. With her in the lead, we really made some good time. She asked me if I remembered what was ahead. I replied quite honestly that my memory had failed me many times on this course, but that I was pretty sure there was a “ski-hill” like open moderate climb for two head-lamps’ worth of time (ie 8 hours). We kept looking for that open ski-hill, but never found it. The climb? Yes, about a two headlamp climb. I managed to bash my shin and eat dirt for the first time on this stretch. The bleeding stopped on it’s own, but the dirt took quite a while for me to spit out while we continued to climb.
Come light, I still had absolutely no recognition of the terrain! We reached a large Aid Station and there I was captured by a medic who dressed my wound and messaged ahead to another AS as she thought I was going to need stitches. We completely ignored that medical advice: there was nothing to stitch! It was an open, bruised bone and would just take time to heal.
Anyway, more importantly, J started to get on me to eat more. Following her example, we really chowed down: polenta, spaghetti, desserts. It had been at least 10 years since I touched food with any kind of animal in it. Well, I would say there was some butter and egg in those rich cakes which both horrified and amazed me. We washed it down with Coke, and chased it with espresso (this is the finest espresso in the world, after all). J’s take on this, “Coffee is really a waste of time – you need the calories in Coke.” Yes, you heard that right: this prissy food snob vegan ingested Coke…and lots of it. It further devolved from there, but let’s just say, there’s a reason this story is called “Cookies & Coke“. My new secret weapon. I was less reliant on my standard “gels”, and found it surprising that other things work as well (or better) as the hours and days slip by. Let’s just say from there on in, there was no need for nice healthy vegan camp food. At least not on this “trip”.
I like to think I was able to reciprocate J’s assistance to me. I was feeling quite stable and, now, quite determined that we were going to finish this thing. J had some pretty serious doubts – and wild mood swings – which are absolutely normal on long ultras. The highs and lows are not something you can describe, but if you can’t get over them, they can derail your race. The discomfort your body feels and the drive to stop that mental and physical twinging can be overwhelming. Sometimes you just need a friend to let you vent and be the calm voice of reason that you CAN put one more foot in front of the other. We swore at this Bitch of a course. Railed against the stupidity of getting involved in something as life-sucking as the TOR. I think I pulled her back from the edge. Then we gave in. Became one with it. Left our bodies and just got on with it.
In no particular order, some of the random memories include: another impressive dirt eating incident (no blood this time); us literally running along a “hills are alive with the sound of music” mountain meadow background with a herd of happy running, mooing, tail wagging cows; I had an impressive Ibex jump across my path just inches from me; as a mushroom forager, almost going out of my mind tripping through a forest with thousands of boletus (porcini) and portobello mushrooms! We also were treated to the most beautiful clear big full moons. One of them popped out of the horizon a bright orange ball. Seriously, have never seen anything like that before.
I also have great memories of travelling along with an international crowd and observing subtle cultural differences. Through my time out there, right or mis-leading, I observed:
- That the French can’t understand French Canadians! Or so I was told…
- That age is no limit to entry and success in a long euro event like this. Women in their 60’s and men in their 70’s – common! They are patient, don’t miss an opportunity for a good gab and espresso and truly enjoy themselves out there. Fitness is a given.
- That the “passing on the trail thing” can be a little awkward. I found groups of quiet guys who would hold their place on the trail and not move aside unless you asked their permission. Once that happened, they were very gracious…but it was not natural for them to step aside when they heard a group behind them. It varied! Quite different from North American standards.
- Certain countries (or maybe certain people) have no problem with cutting switchbacks. It was forbidden, but interesting to watch how many chose to beetle their way up in spite of the vast majority holding to the track. I never heard one grump from anyone about it. Just personal choice.
- Germans can be hilarious: one particularly charming fellow was complaining about other Germans. “They won’t even say hi or admit they’re German. It’s the old – I’m not a Nazi – guilt. Which of course they are.” Sensitive subject, but it just brought out the giggle in me. The things you hear on the trail.
- Italian men… really appreciate women. My younger friend was exceedingly popular. It was a blast to watch, but so dang obvious. Like cars, soccer and wine…
- There is no such thing as modesty in life bases. My poor Karen…
By now, I learned that Michael H. was rocking this thing. He had stayed focused, on course, and was nearing the finish. Although I did NOT want to hear about how folks were doing until later in the event, I was out of my mind happy for him. I felt we would be a day behind him, but that was a very uplifting thought. I (We) could smell the barn.
As alluded to before, Karen & Michael R. (and Robert for Michael H.) were Most Awesome Crew for sure: they were always there just before planned sleep breaks. Michael R. would get them there, then change/charge batteries (phone/headlamps). Karen would fill water, resupply race nutrition, check electrolyte supply, deal with Kleenex and other garbage, clean clothes as necessary (what a Saint). We’d chat about how things were going, confirm when to meet next, get hugs all around and they were there and gone, usually within half an hour at most. Until Ollomont, the last Life Base (and almost the last time cut-off), we didn’t talk about who was where. When we finally did, I realized – once again – how damn lucky we were.
J & I left Ollomont in good spirits. This was the final 50 km. We were going into the evening: the chatter was light and we felt good. The day leading to Ollomont had been quite easy, aside from the heat (nearly 35 C). A landslide had forced a significant route change and so, this section had 700 meters less climbing, and 4 km less distance than the original course. You could tell it was quickly put together, at lower elevation (near the highway, actually) and allowed for some actual quick steps. Anyway, the point is that it was not the usual two or three, 2,000 or 3,000 meter climbs kind of day. Even Ollomont was not as crowded, rushed and tense as five years ago. Hence the good spirits I mentioned at the beginning of this paragraph.
Looking back at it in hindsight, the signs were right there. Literally. We had been so lucky with weather, but chatter had started about potential colder weather and snow in the forecast. The weather forecast board recommended crampons and mentioned possible snow at higher elevations. I will never understand the stupidity of my decision, but I chose NOT to throw my crampons in my pack. The word “recommended”, and not “required” lulled me into a false sense of security. Only 50 km to go. Stupid: I brought everything else; had carried more than the required amount of stuff the whole event up until then. Ugh.
So, as the light chatter eased, and we climbed ever higher out of Ollomont, sure enough the weather started to change: first rain, then wind, then colder gusts on more exposed, technical terrain. We had headlamp issues, and our moods started to disintegrate. By the time we reached the next Aid Station (or maybe two, can’t quite remember), J was seriously in need of a cat-nap, and I was deep in my own drama. This Aid Station was filthy, crowded, and the mood was ugly all around. Somehow I managed to piss-off a French guy. I really had no idea how, but I’ve never felt that kind of “creepy” before. I really had to keep averting my eyes not to feel his glower, even though his buddies were trying to smack him out of it. I’m not sure if he was the dude who yelled at me earlier in the day. J and I came downhill upon him, and, following for a while, I made a move to pass. It was the usual, “Hi, moving to your left”, but I clearly startled him. I slowed down and called back, “Scusi”, but he cussed and clearly was not impressed. Anyway, I think that was it? Mercifully, an announcement was made that cat naps were not possible here due to congestion and followed the emptying crowd out into the rain…
By the time we arrived at Bosses, a fairly large Aid Station (life base size), we were soaked in spite of wearing all rain gear. It was 2 in the morning (ish). They were using a local church to stash bodies for sleeping purposes. We decided sleeping off a couple of hours of this pouring rain was a prudent idea. When we awoke we would have our last big climb: Malatra. I knew, from 5 years ago, that this was an impressive climb: even then it was ice covered mud, chains, and large vertical rocks. They had supplied climbing guides to make sure no one screwed up. One wanted to be rested for that.
The church room was like a crypt, completely dark, with cots side-by-side and end-to-end. No where to put your wet gear but under the cot. I was asleep in 2 seconds, and in what seemed like 2 seconds was being awoken and hurried along outside so other bodies could be placed in our spots. We waded back to the life base, ate a little, and headed back out into the night.
Within a few hundred meters the rain turned into snow. Blowing, horizontal snow, which thickened with each step. I was horrified. After ski touring for a few years, I knew what a blizzard like this could do. We were wet in spite of excellent rain gear. My hands were getting cold. I hunkered down into my jacket, locking up exposed skin. I wished I had my ski gear. It was time for skis/skins and all the good ski touring equipment. I shit you not.
We kept moving, the snow a few inches deep now. Eventually we conga-lined into more folks. Heads down, we eventually saw a truck coming down the road. Race officials pointed us to a nearby farm and we were told to stay there until decisions were made about the future of the race. It was going to be shut down OR groups of us were going to be escorted by Guides if they could safely get us up and over Malatra. Seeing the cows in the snow, you could not help but be amazed that these farms exist on “plateaus” high up the mountains. The barn was made of stone (impressive), and the farmhouse was an extension of the barns.
We waited – many of us – in the farmers’ house. How generous they were. All of us filthy, cranky strangers filling their living room, their kitchen, every square inch. We waited for hours. There was speculation, there was tension, there were so many opinions on what should be done. The Italian “officials” were so patient, so gracious. They explained that decisions were being made for the safety of all, but it would take time. And they had to explain it in 3 different languages to 50 different temperaments of people. All the TOR450 participants were spread about and had to be accounted for. Decisions had to be made about the other 3 races, including ours.
In the end, 20 km from the finish, our race was done. The 30 had been outright cancelled. The 450, 330, 130 were stopped. I was relieved…as I truly thought someone(s) was going to die. Some folks were angry: they wanted that finishers medal no matter the risk or cost. I feel it was the ONLY decision the race directors could make. Did we want to be like the China Incident? Anyway…everyone was found and brought home safely, through great risk to the Guides who hunted everyone down. Our families were in the dark for quite a few hours, but all was good in the end. Have been thinking about it and am still grateful to that family who welcomed all of us tired and cranky folks into their home. Wish I could send a cleaning crew to follow up our mess…
Of course, by the time we were all shuttled back down the mountains, the sky was blue and the temperatures warmed. We got J back to her hotel, and sadly had to say good-bye. With her schedule, she had to head right back to Alaska the next morning. Attending the closing ceremonies would be impossible for her this year. I am so very grateful for meeting J. She was so much fun. I loved watching her bedazzle the “boys” with such ease, she probably didn’t even realize it. For opening the door to a new and delightful bad habit. For sharing those long, often dark and dangerous trails. Truly hope our paths cross in the future.
From J drop-off, we three headed back to our cozy apartment in Dolonne. Seems to me I ate one of Nelly’s sweet big tomatoes on a slab of grainy bread, and nearly fell asleep in the shower. I probably wasn’t even conscious when I pulled on compression socks. Beds, Sweet Beds…here we come…
I knew that I would awake to some sort of personal hideousness. 5 years ago, I awoke with a face that looked like I had been in a losing bar fight. Apparently my compression socks had moved the swelling from my lower legs to my face. This morning I woke to my beloved husband sticking a camera in my face: he wanted to document the impressive swelling – round 2. Fortunately, getting out of bed helped the fluid run back down to my ankles. From left to right, 2017 and 2022, morning aftermath:
Now you know how nuts I am…what sane woman would show these pics??
For a few days I tended to foot blisters (not bad this year, 5 or 6 good poppers) and cycled through compression sock cycles to deal with swelling. My tongue was kind of raw from tomato acids (and likely sugar over-dose), but my appetite was, thankfully, enormous. My nose looked like I had been snorting cocaine for the past week straight (runny nose mixed with salty sweat makes for a gross nose rash). My lips were peeling off in layers. By the time we arrived back in Whistler a few days later, the swelling had all but dissipated, along with a good 10 lbs of weight. Still working on putting it back on, but it was inevitable. I can feel my strength returning with each passing day, in particular starting about day 10. An event like this is going to knock you on your butt for a while. I am very grateful to pull through as “easily” as I did.
Through nearly 2 years of injury drama, I had not one moment of discomfort during this year’s TOR. Click-Click. Crazy how everything fell into place when it mattered.
We found out, that morning, that all of us who had clocked into Bosses by a certain time, would be given full credit for the race. We would be given finishers’ medals, swag, and all the pomp and glory meted out at the closing ceremonies later that day. It was an unexpected high!
Added to that, I found out that Michael had finished his race nearly a day faster than our last attempt. So proud of him. Could not be happier if he were my kid brother! He slipped through Malatra before the snow: Way to Gooooo!!!!! 😉
The Party (La Festa)
Closing ceremonies were scheduled for the day after the final finishers “crossed the line”. Italians really know how to Celebrate. How to party and how to give credit to all those due. Folks actually look forward to attending these things: sleep deprived, sore, and all. They took just under two hours to formally recognize Everyone. All the way, they efficiently hyped everyone up with amazing music. There was credit given to the communities, the thousands of volunteers, the Guides who brought everyone home safely, the medics, the tireless organizers, to start. Then the podium finishers of each event.
Then the age groupers (5 different age categories) of each event. There were so many names called out and so much cheering and fanfare. My head whipped around when I heard “Canada” (do I know them?)…and my name! Holy, **it, I had won my age category! We were seated way back from the crowd: I could not see the entry up to the stage. As they waited for me, I dove down through the crowd, needle-nosed my way through to the front, where a couple of young guys picked me up and threw me over the barrier fence. I floated up the stairs, hugged the ladies to the right and left of me and was escorted into the centre. Just like I had seen so many others do…I rose my little yellow cow trophy above my head in happiness (yellow is the TOR colour and the cow, well, they are the backbone of these northern communities). Seriously, I was floating on a total high. And it may be a while before I land back on earth.
From there, they celebrated the oldest two people (no, it was not me ;), and the youngest (I had met the 21 year old somewhere out there on the trail: young strapping “kid”). Finally – and this is so very impressive – they brought each and every finisher up to get their medal, swag (T-shirt and very nice hydration vest), and handshake, starting from the last place to the first. By the time the first place finishers got to the front the crowd was so frothed up and the music so sweeping, it was quite the show. The 2022 Tor des Geants was officially closed, leaving everyone in it’s path dazed, grateful, and floating on cloud 9.
We had a night to go for dinner with Michael and Robert at the amazing neighbourhood restaurant (between us all we probably visited it 10 times, such was it’s excellence). All of us tired, it gave us a chance to say good-bye, as they were leaving for Texas the next morning. I am so proud of my friend, Michael H., and his brother, Robert. Brings a little tear of happiness. Looking forward to having our paths cross again in the future.
The next day (our last), we three drove to Chamonix (back through the tunnel) for a day trip. It would be Karen’s first day in Chamonix (aside from sleeping there for a few hours the first night), a very chic and beautiful mountain town on the French side of the tunnel. We indulged in chocolate, espresso and a fine lunch, took pictures and ohhhlala’d. Now unusual in Italy, we saw quite a few smokers, including right in the outside restaurant patio area. Kind of a throw back to the 80’s? It was odd having the table next to us on both sides “lighting up”. A friend mentioned it was the best city in the world to live in. Could well be. But our hearts were still back in Italy, and yes, back in British Columbia. Returning to Courmayeur, we packed for our trip back home the following morning. And yes – had our last meal – once again at the Amazing neighbourhood ristorante. In the morning we had to say our sad good-byes to our hosts, and friends, Nelly and Ilario.
The trip back home was long: now expected flight delays made it impossible to make Karen’s ferry back to Vancouver Island. Just as we had a bonus night in Chamonix, Karen had a bonus night in Whistler. The next day Michael got her back to the ferry and we all collapsed afterwards. Like magic, our colds escalated: within 2 days I was seeing a doctor to make sure this thing hadn’t gone bacterial. He checked me out, assured me that all was well within normal range, including clear lungs. No pneumonia. Just a nasty common cold with a croaky voice and runny nose. Said that my body had already won the battle, but now it had to clean up the battlefield mess. Would take a week or two. The fatigue? Well, blame that on jet lag, blame that on a big race.
Speaking with Gary (& Eric) a week later, I would’ve hugged them through the phone if I could’ve. Sooo Grateful. I asked for a month off to heal this cold, body, and mind. It’s been a long haul, for everyone. Saying something like, “Wise choice”, we will meet again in November. Who knows what the future will bring? I will have turned 62 by then, and well know each year is an extraordinary blessing.
In the meantime, rest, healing and Gratitude. Karen and Michael R., this story is dedicated to you. My Love and Gratitude knows no bounds.