The Tor de Geants mountain race by Stevie Haston.
Stevie Haston, alpinist, ice climber and snowboarder, tells about his experience of the first ever Tor de Geants, the incredible mountain marathon which covers 330km and 24,000 vertical meters, starting and finishing at Courmayeur and completing a circle around the Valle d'Aosta, via the Gran Paradiso, Monte Rosa, the Matterhorn and Mont Blanc.
How would you like to run for 330 km? You probably wouldn’t, no sensible person would. Would you like to do 24,000 meters of ascent and decent? No definitely not, you would have to be out of your mind, right? The Tor de Geants is a race, or event, that takes in the 330km and 24,000meters of up and had 380 entrants of all ages, who thought it might be fun. Surprisingly they all seemed fairly normal to me, a bit passionate perhaps, very fit and eager, but no they weren’t out of their minds. Don’t get me, or them wrong, none of them thought it would be easy, and they certainly knew it would hurt more than a little. So why did they do it?
Well for a start the TDG is held in some of the most beautiful valleys of the world, and it was arranged in a logical way to create a journey that showed this beauty off, but also paid homage to the local people who try to live within these mountains in a peaceful and harmonious way. The TDG takes high level walking routes around the mountains of the Aosta region, starting and finishing in Courmayeur. Courmayeur is well known to the climbing community, but in the last few years it has become a great centre for mountain running. And this is where I personally got involved, as I know these valleys intimately from climbing in them for 30 years.
I noticed the TDG announcement 5 weeks before its start and was seduced by its magic and its provocative challenging allurement. All that beauty within a scant 7 days, was it possible? It was apparently possible for non professionals, but was it possible for me, a rock climber who hadn’t done any endurance for a few years. I had been looking for an excuse to take a break from climbing, and the more I thought about all those lovely valleys in the race, the more I was hooked.
If you break the Tor de Geants down into stages, it sounds logical and simple and this is what fooled me, although I guess I must have been willing to be fooled. Each day you would do a mountain marathon with 4000meters of ascent and descent, how hard could that be I reasoned? In truth this would be hard enough but the tricky bit about the Tor is the lack of sleep, something even the good competitors had trouble with, but of course they were at least clever enough to understand this important factor. I also desperately wanted to see some good guys and girls running hard, to inspire me.
Sport for me is about people who try hard. The motivation and passion among mountain runners has always cheered me up, especially as it is a sport that doesn’t get much mainstream attention. In my cynical eyes they would be freer from the nonsense that sometimes surrounds climbing and would give me a boost. After really looking at how the Tor broke down and its apparent lack of sleep, I did want to back out and thought about just watching it. I was scared by the sheer hard work involved, the pain, the lack of glory, the night marches into your own private purgatory, if not hell.
Did I back out? No I didn’t, because in 5 short weeks I morphed into a runner, I turned into an endomorphine junky, like I was when I was a kid. The enormous joy of travelling fairly big distances over fabulous mountain terrain bit into my soul and wouldn’t let go. In training around the lovely hills of North Wales I met great warm generous people who helped me run. When I went to work in Courmayeur I met more gentle loving people who helped me run, the sun shone and those mountains just begged you to walk, trot or run over them.
Six days before the race I met Marco high in the hills at a refugio, a chance meeting of like minded souls, he gave me a schedule for trotting the race which helped me greatly and was sad that he was going to pull out of it because of overtraining. I tried to keep him in the race and said my good byes. On the 50 km way back home a cut developed in my heel, I would have to cancel my race, and I developed Marcos visage, sad miserable, like loosing a lover. 5 weeks training down the tube, Marco had invested more, I was lucky I tried to tell myself, I had a good excuse and wouldn’t have all that pain, but neither would I have the joy. In the six days before the race the cut did not heal, and then I did what a lot of endurance runners would do: I just decided I was going to enter and every mile I did would be a victory until I gave up.
On race day I walked the 2 km to the start and got excited seeing all the great athletes and all the ordinary runners who were about to try really really hard just to finish. The excitement was really extraordinary, the organisers put on a great start and everybody was pumped up with the music and the enormity of the distance. Before I knew it we were off, and because the first couple of hours were uphill only there was no painful landing on my heels and I started to gain places from my back of the pack start.
The weather was glorious, the mountains stupendous and the feeling among the runners was uplifting. I felt no real pain that day and ran a fair bit, the crunch came later at the end of the day's stage. We all had the opportunity to rest, eat and sleep in a so-called life-base, these were entirely adequate, indeed excellent and with lovely volunteers, but due to the runners' nerves, the coming and going of people, and your metabolism being all over the place sleep tended to be impossible. Indeed the good guys and girls didn’t stop, they just pushed on, it was something I didn’t really understand and even if I had I would not have had the confidence to do.
This was my first race, and I had jumped into a big one where tactics and experience counted even more than running ability and things like VO2 max. In this race and others like it, sheer grit and being very tough count very high. At the end of the race I was finally ahead of better athletes than myself and I, in turn, was placed lower than some ordinary but fantastically enduring people who showed more grit.
At life-base one I tried to sleep, I squeezed my eyes shut for 2 hours, but no sleep, not a wink, so I got up and started walking in the rain, in the dark. And here I learnt another lesson, you must have the right equipment, a good system of clothes, be familiar with it and know how to use it all. I wasn’t on top of this and changing waterproofs every 5 minutes costs you time, and all those changes and little rest stops over 330 km add up to about a day, a day that you can’t get back. There was a tough Col at 3200 meters and here again was a lesson, despite being someone who climbs at medium altitudes this is not enough and I visibly slowed down above 2500 meters.
So acclimatisation is very necessary on this race. Some of the downhill sections from Cols fully taxed my mountain craft in the rain, and I was grateful of my decision to take poles. Walking poles were in great evidence and let you use different muscles as well as helping you maintain stability in the dark and when walking downhill half asleep. But they do need practise to use well.
At one point a good Italian runner paused to cheer me up before he over took me. Come on he said a bit more and a lovely smooth decent for 14km. And he was right, a smooth even path but I couldn’t do it justice, a slow dogtrot was all I could muster.
Another similar night in a life-base and I was up before I’d rested, talking to Mark from the Lake district in Britain. He was going to quit due to a wrenched knee, I tried to keep him in the race, and he helped me with my cut, but he reluctantly pulled out. So I was now fully into a cycle of trying to sleep, but only resting for a few hours. Having a warm meal and then off again. The uphill ascents, however hard were fine, and the downhills were often agony. I had to develop different ways of walking, or trotting, which didn’t involve heel strikes. Somehow I kept going, because lots of runners had troubles of their own, but you would be cheered up by another kind runner.
The fourth section was 56 km with about 5000 meters of up, it went on, and on. I started just before sunset so that my feet would be colder and wouldn’t get as damaged. At the Refugio de Coda in the dark, a sparkling view over the plain of Piedmont, town lights 50 km away were like a fairy tale, and then afterwards endless rocks. I overtook a young lady who was having an asthma attack and tried to assure her it was fine and then rushed on so I could tell someone. An hour later I bumped into Pascal who was looking after a few runners including the girl I’d just seen, it was at a windy col as the day broke, and she was overjoyed to hear I thought her pal was fine, she trotted down the hill like a spring bunny with some medicine. Pascal will probable do the race next year, see you then eh? Anyway this stage nearly broke me, but after a short rest at the next life-base I carried on, I didn’t trust myself to sleep now, thinking if I found sleep I wouldn’t wake up.
Now then, this next stage was supposed to be easy, but I found it very hard, my feet had both got really bad, and there was a huge unending rocky descent to finish. A lovely airy series of cols worthy of Lord of the Rings, and then downhill torture for 1500 meters. It was hell, I did some of it asleep, on auto pilot. I knew the last 2 stages because I had done them in practice, so I thought I had the race in the bag. But my feet got worse and worse 'till finally I needed a lot of work from a doctor and a nurse. I would like to thank the nurse again, she was from Spain and was very empathetic, when she was lancing the cuts and blisters, I really did know it was hurting her more than me. Finally I was on my feet but I couldn’t get one of the shoes on so we had to cut that, too. In the end I limped off, it turned into a hobble after a few kilometers and somewhere along the way I did about 14 kms of running. From the final Col I always knew that it would be O.K. as the view of the Monte Bianco is one of the most magical this planet offers, with the ridge of the Noire like a great flying buttress soaring to the roof of the mightiest cathedral of Europe, it is simply sublime.
I finished 82nd to a lovely warm welcome and met the two leading girls who had come in a day and a half ahead of me, seriously good times not like mine. Julia asked me what I had been up to in all that time, cheeky little Imp, she was great, hi Julia next time! Some of the runners of course did excellent times, some just scraped through, but many of the more experienced ones said it was the hardest race they had done. This is not a warning, it is merely so you know, in my humble opinion as I am a novice, and the joys seemed equal to the effort. The bonus is you get to see the best from people, the warmth and generosity of the locals and the right stuff by the competitors. All in all very life affirming.
The Tor de Giants is a fantastic run in superb mountain landscape, but it is much more than that, it is the spirit of 1200 volunteers – incredible - its local people who walk up hills in the middle of the night to say bravo - and competitors who aren’t your enemy, they are your friends. You visit differing valleys who speak three different languages but all love the region and respect and protect it. I am incredible lucky to have been tricked into this celebration of mountain life and thanks once more to the organisers and sponsors. A special personal thanks to everybody who gave me a helping hand and there were many, very many grazie. The Tor de Géants is finally over, long live the tour, do not hesitate to make your date with the Geants.
Ulrich Gross won the race after second placer Calvo Redondo slowed due to injury. Ulrich`s sister came an incredible fourth overall, a tough lady and an inspiration. The leaders are clearly athletes and were more than a day and a half ahead of me. If you are just a fit person you should be able to do the Tor in around the same time as me, do you feel like finding out?