The Tor does not treat expectations kindly. I had endlessly studied the course profile, read countless race reports, and spent hours on Youtube watching footage, but this was akin to reading the grocery store romance novel versus actually falling madly in love. The Tor des Geants is not a bigger or steeper or longer race, it is a completely new experience. You often hear that ultramarathons contain all the emotions of a lifetime in a single race—joy, despair, compassion, anger, pride, humility, etc. But my journey at the Tor had emotions, wholly unique, that will only occur once in a lifetime. I feel changed, and not because I am well under race weight even after a week of eating gelato and pizza all day. I feel more connected to my present, and to the people, the mountains and feelings that compose that present. It is difficult to write this report, in some ways because I am revisiting, and frankly still processing, a time and place that occupied my full awareness during its passing. But on to the details…
I have done long, mountain hundreds like Hardrock before, but the magnitude of this was new—210 miles, 80,000 feet of climbing and multiple days and nights out on the course. With this in mind I arrived in Courmayeur a few days before the race, somewhat nervous, as I did not know how my mind and body would respond to the steep, steep mountains and several days without sleep. The small ski town was glowing with anticipation, and the locals of the valley would smile as they posed the simple question to me, “Tor?” A hero’s welcome for any and all who wore the little yellow wrist band signifying they had passed the check in procedure. Every store or restaurant owner greeting me with hearty handshake and potentially a shot of Genepi, the local liquor fermented with herbs that grow high in the mountains. I met up with a few European runners that I knew from other races, and they updated me on the current state of spandex and compression gear on the Euro scene while I responded with Trucker hats and flannel from the States. I checked in with all my mandatory gear (crampons, waterproof gear, space blankets, phone, etc.) and spent the rest of the day alternating between napping and continuously grazing on the abundant fresh pasta options.
Race morning came quickly, and I found myself in the starting corral trying to keep my emotions calm as hundreds of runners filled the air with excited chatter in dozens of languages and thousands of cowbells rang clear. The first mile of the race runs directly though town, down stone-paved streets and amongst small shops and cafes, and the streets are lined with locals and race fans alike. Did I say I was trying to stay calm? Screw that, I was here to soak it in. In typical European race fashion the race went out fast, 6-7 minute mile fast, and I was probably 50 deep. We quickly transitioned to trail and the first of countless big climbs, and I tried to settle in for the duration. The elevation isn’t huge here, between 4,000 and 10,000 feet for the most part, but the relief is stunning. Every climb and descent seemed to be around 5,000 feet, and steep. I had been training at Squaw trying to mimic this, but it was still not equal. At the top of the first climb, Col Arp, there was seemingly a house party happening—probably 50-60 people gathered around this small pass cheering on runners. There was a tunnel of fans, AYSO soccer style, raising arms above runners as we passed. Again, screw that trying to stay calm bit. And then we were off down the backside. The steepness of the descents demanded respect as they were both steep and sustained—imagine running down a black ski slope for a few miles. If I describe every climb and descent of the race, this report is going to look like a Dostoyevsky novel pretty quickly so I’ll try to be as brief as possible. My race was essentially made up of two parts—day one and the rest.
Day one was a disaster. Going up the third climb, I began to feel nauseated and soon thereafter I was hanging off the side of the trail watching my breakfast disappear off the edge. Hmmm, I don’t remember there being kiwi in the fruit salad… After regrouping at one of the small bivouacs at the top of the pass, I continued down to the first life base around 50k feeling a little better but somewhat wary. Side note here–the Tor has incredible infrastructure. There are six life bases, each around 50k apart. Each of these has hot food (pasta, polenta, meats, soup, etc.), medical staff, cots for sleeping, and each individual racer’s bag. You are given the iconic large yellow duffle that is transported between the bases in which you can put spare shoes, clothes, batteries, and industrial size containers of almond butter. I was somewhat unprepared for the life base and was not as efficient as I should have been getting in and out.
On the subsequent climb things went from bad to worse. My legs were cramping and the vomiting began again in earnest. I curled up on the side of the trail a few miles out of the checkpoint and tried to get it together. I was low, I was broken and I had my own private pity party. Things did not improve and as it was now night and cold, I turned around and headed back to the checkpoint for warmth and more wallowing in my broken pride. To be honest, I was pretty sure my race was done—that I had come all this way, trained for all these months to be defeated in the first 40 miles. I was far enough in front of the cut off time that I spent over six hours at the check point trying to stop puking and battling those proverbial internal demons. At some point, and truthfully I don’t know why, I just got up, got cleared by the medical staff, and walked out into the night back up the trail. I entered the checkpoint in around 20th place, and left somewhere around 300th, my hopes of a top ten finish dissolved.
I leaned into the next five thousand foot climb and so began the second part of my race, the last 170 miles, and perhaps the greatest running experience that I’ve had in 25+ years of competitive running.
I climbed up Col Entrelor as the sun was rising, with a sense of purpose, greeting runners as I passed. A few more mountains and I dropped into the next life base at Cogne. My stomach was feeling solid, aside from some actual sore stomach muscles from the vomiting, and my body inexplicably felt great. I was managing to not pee on my shoes most of the time and things were looking up. I ate a hearty meal of cheese, pasta, olive oil, bread and a few snacks and continued on, climbing into the late afternoon. In between the life bases there are small “refreshment” points. These are often refugios or mountain huts, staffed by hearty mountain folk to provide shelter and food for the trekkers during the summer months. Here the fare was somewhat variable, but usually consisted of whole food items (cheese, salami, bread, cookies, pies) with treats like espresso or homemade polenta at some locations. It was at one of these stops that I discovered a little known cultural fact—Italians love California. When people asked where I was from, I had been saying the United States. The response to this was warm but perhaps reserved. At the next refugio, the owner asked where I was from and I replied California. Boom! High fives all around, hugs, and I was now enjoying rock star status. From then on the Cali train was rolling.
A little after midnight on the second night at around 90 miles, I stopped for my first nap. While I slept for about 60 minutes, I still struggled a little with inefficiency and spent a few hours in the life base eating, doctoring up my feet, and recharging. Literally recharging, hooking up my watch and headlamp to the portable charger I had packed in my duffel bag. It was sometime in this second night that my body and mind settled into a singular existence, and awareness of only the present moment. The complexity of life, especially modern human life stripped away and laid bare to the moment at hand—climb this mountain, move forward, eat, breathe. My body was running, and I was inside it.
I haven’t been a person who meditates, does yoga or actively seeks mindfulness. But something happened in this race, something unexpected, something unsought. I felt an immersive peace for the last few days of the race. I’ve since read a few articles on this, and there are some physiologic theories surrounding the state I think I was in. Essentially the clutter from excessive sensory processing and cognitive reappraisal decreases and the centers of the brain that process and relay this information relax. It felt like an alert state of flow.
I digress—the Tor was not all incense, candles and yoga pants. The race is hard. Over the last three passes there was torrential rain and pounding snow. The nights were long, and I had vivid hallucinations. I saw ghosts, and I saw the dragon. At one point as I wound down into the last life base at Ollomont my mind was so addled that I could not grasp simple math and figure out how to add my time on that section to my total time. There were soaring highs and crushing lows. I taped my nipples in the rain.
As I hit the streets of Courmayeur in the last mile to the finish, an overwhelming sense of gratitude washed over me. Gratitude for my family and wife who supported me and did some serious single parenting to let me pursue this journey. Gratitude to have a healthy body that will endure these endeavors. Gratitude for the mountains and trails. Gratitude for the race staff, volunteers and people of the Aosta Valley. There is only one Tor, and I am lucky to be a part of it. I ended up finishing in 32nd place overall, and as the first American—the race took me just over 104 hours with around 4-5 hours of sleep total.
On the plane ride home, I began to process some of this journey. The near full moon as I climbed over Col Pinter, the warm generosity of the people at the mountain huts (particularly at Refugio Barmassa with the kind words of encouragement and rich espresso but only after learning that I would not be supporting a certain real estate mogul in the upcoming election), the deep comraderie of fellow runners or “Geants”, the climb into the misty rain of Col Brison, the hearty polenta and venison in Niel, and the fierce pride of the people of the Aosta Valley with their cheers of “Bravo!” still echoing. People who have done the Tor share a look in their eyes, beyond the bleary, red exhaustion, and I feel connected to this community. There is more to this story than I can begin to relate on these pages, but I think it better shared over a long run or a short glass of Genepi.