GRAZIE - THANK YOU - MERCI announced a letter in my inbox on the 29th of February. You are the chosen one. Instantly I felt awesome, who doesn't want to be the chosen one, right? After the echo of the victory roar reached back to me from the slate stone cliff somewhere in Tallinn, my excitement was replaced by anxiety and countless thought whirling around in my head. Will I have any toe nails at the end of September? Man, I need to train like a mad-man now! How likely is that I get tired?
I had every reason to be anxious, because the letter informed me that I qualified to the Tor des Geants. What follows is my story.
- 339km on foot
- Almost 30 000m of ascent and descent. That is about 3 times from the sea level to the top of Mt.Everest and back. (8848m)
- 150h time limit to complete
- 11-18th of September 2016
- Courmayeur, Aosta Valley, Italy
I thought it is nice to start with a summary of thoughts, feelings and emotions from the race. If you are keen on reading just one 5 minute piece then this is for you. If you are keen on reading about the race through the eyes of my awesome support crew or about training, equipment, race course, how to make number two on a squat toilet after running 180km or tips on how to sleep while running down a steep hill, please do scroll down.
But for now - grab a beer, make yourself a cup of coffee or tea and see the 7th edition Tor des Geants throug my eyes.
There are two major things I'm taking with me from this epic feat.
- Human body is capable of so much more than we think. So much more. My friend Elias said after the race that he hopes I found what I went to look for. The answer is "yes and no". I found out that my body is home and by treating it right it is capable of taking me way longer than I could have ever imagined. Probably way longer than Tor des Geants actually. See, at the first check point in Valgrisenche on the 50km mark everything was hurting. On the scale from 1 to 10 the pain level was 7. The same happened on the second check point at Cogne on the 106km mark. But after that my body seemed to be giving up sending signals to the brain saying "hey buddy, I think it's time to stop, otherwise I might break". Instead it started cooperating and accepted the fact that the mind is in charge of this game and there was now way it would stop. All that ended with a mad downhill dash in the dark over the last 20km, where I covered about 1500m of descent and 300m of ascent in mere 3 hours. That, my friends felt like walking on air! What I didn't find out was where does the line between mentally and physically possible and impossible lies. That is my ultimate goal. I want to find the point where both my mind and my body would say "stop, from here no further" and then inch my body just a little bit beyond that line.
- If you want to go fast, go alone, if you want to go far, go together. If you are ever considering doing a race like this, bring a crew. Engage people you love and care about so much that a mere thought about seeing them for 2 minutes at an aid station where a guy is ringing a giant cow-bell 24/7 non-stop before going for a 45min power nap makes you smile and want to get to that aid station as soon as possible. I really don't know what I would have done or how the race would have played out if my wife Tuuli and our friend Leanne would have not been there. It would have been times and times harder if not impossible. That is just massive what a small kiss or a hug is capable of doing and how you would fly out of the aid station, completely rejuvenated! I teamed up with Ben from Denmark somewhere at 160km mark and that also was a good call. It pushed us both to move forward at a constant and steady pace and placed a chip of responsibility to each others shoulders. Thank you Tuuli, Leanne and Ben!
For sure, there are many other important lessons learned, but these were the two most important ones.
If I would have to squeeze out the third one then it would be - trust your gut feeling! The biggest gut feeling call I made was to purchase a pair of new shoes 15h before the race. I know many of you are going ape shit, whirling your eyes and laughing on the floor, but what if I told you that I finished the race all the toe nails intact, one tiny blister on my heel together with couple of hotspots and a just a tiny bit of maceration underneath one toe? There are shoes for ballerina feet and then there are shoes that are made based on how a human foot actually looks like - Altra shoes! Having used them extensively before I had no doubts in buying a new pair so close to the race. Gut feeling also played an important role when it came to eating, predicting the weather and deciding when to move faster and when to ease the pace, but I will camp out on those topics in later posts!
And the last thing about what I learned from this race was that instead of a giant sufferfest it was actually a visually amazing journey. Hailing from a land that is flat as a pancake, time and time again I would literally have to use my hand to shut my mouth that had dropped in awe, otherwise my core temperature would have plummeted down and I would have become hypothermic. It was just breathtaking!
The next section will be all about the route, landscape and ... race tactics (surprised, right?). So stay tuned!
I’m pretty sure that you can find some of the fittest people in the world when you move along the trails that pass the two valleys around the Mont Blanc Massif - the Chamonix Valley on the French side and the Aosta Valley on the Italian side. The peaking period seems to be at the end of the summer when at the end of August there is Ultra Trail Mont Blanc in Chamonix and Tor des Geants in Courmayeur. And truth to be told, there is a reason for that because when you look at the elevation map it is clear that already from the very first ascent one needs to start working hard.
The route of Tor des Geants is divided into seven more or less equal parts so that the massive distance and elevation numbers wouldn’t knock the living daylights out of you right at the start. In the following I will try to reflect some of the stuff that happened on each of those sections.
1 - Courmayeur - Valgrisenche, 50km and about 4200m of elevation gain.Start. The runners start moving and there are heaps of people on the streets of Courmayeur out cheering us. Suddenly, somewhat out of nowhere there is a deep internal acknowledgement that this is it, this is the thing I’ve been focussing since February and with a roar I start moving. I would be lying if I would say that the moment is not emotional, because it is. My eyes are wet and there is this feeling that right here, right now I’m able to climb any given mountain, just bring it on.
There is not much time left by the organisers to be all teary and emotional and to get a proper warm-up in, because the trail rises straight up from Courmayeur that is about 1000m from the sea level to Col d’Arp that is about 2500m from the sea level. 1500m of elevation gain for breakfast sounds like there should be an instant divide between the strong and mighty and the not so mighty ones, but on the trail everybody is relaxed, having a chat with the neighbour and are seemingly in no hurry. Of course there are couple of heroes, as always who are fighting for the position already on the fifth kilometre like the final dash to finish is about to start any second now.
I haven’t even noticed the day passing by when I meet Tuuli, Leanne and Indy for the first time somewhere at the 43km mark. I’m running pretty fast despite the fact that I’ve done over 4000m of ascent and descent and the girls tell me that it is a mere 7km pretty flattish road to the first big life base. As it turns out right away I need to rethink my definition of “pretty flattish” and put everything into appropriate perspective as in the mids of these snowy peaks here that means only some few hundred meters of elevation gain and loss.
The last about 5km of this and every subsequent section feel like the time has stopped and distances are doubled. Most of the trails are much higher and quite far away from the small villages and lifebases dotted in different valleys, so it is pretty logical that once in a while you need to descent to those valleys. The long ascents and brutal descents of the sections done, one would assume that the last few kilometres somewhere at the bottom of the valley are a walk in the park while sipping G&T’s, but the reality is further from the assumption than Mars from the Earth. Reaching the “pretty flattish” forrest, the trail zig-zagging the lower parts of the valley it seems that somebody has been messing with the time. It is almost impossible that only few seemingly easy kilometres take subjectively that much time to cover. Well - there is only one solution to that - since you can measure the time only by comparing it to time, I decided not to look at my watch during those sections. It helps, maybe not as much as I was expecting, but still. In addition to the time issue in the forrest the course makes an almost mandatory loop in the villages where the lifebases are located. Those villages are absolutely amazing I have to say and I really enjoy running through them. With a few exceptions of course when I am so tired and grumpy that the only thing I can think of is definitely not the nice old stone houses, but the muddy bed where I can have a power-nap for an hour.
A quick pasta and a quick 60min beauty-sleep later I’m again ready to hit the trail. As I don’t have any experience for races this long, my strategy is to sleep at least an hour or more in every big life base. In addition to the challenges that come with time and distance I’m also relatively unfamiliar with the terrain, so it is pretty predictable that the initial strategy will be used as a toilet paper from here onwards and I will sleep whenever I feel the need for it or there is a chance to do so.
2- Valgrisenche - Cogne, 58km and about 5000m of elevation gain.
Similarly to the first section there are three mammoth-climbs waiting for me here, including Col Loson, the highest point of the whole course that sits 3300m above the sea level. In general I’m very ok being alone in the dark. Partly because of me being comfortable and partly because of the adrenaline still pumping, the first night is one of the most enjoyable of the whole course. I see maximum of then people in about six hours that separates the moment I leave the first lifebase and the sunrise. The rest of the time I’m working alone in the dark forests and fields. Absolute freedom.
The first 100km or so are physically the most difficult for me. The body is not used to this continuous strain and sends constant signals to the brain, telling that the thing happening right now is not sustainable and not really right. Lucky for me I’ve decided to ignore those messages. Ignoring here doesn’t mean neglecting though. To me it means separating the important from what is not important.
“Is that numb pain in my knee caused by fatigue or injury?”,
“does that small rock in my shoe have the potential to create a huge blister in an hour?”,
“should I stop and deal with the problem?”,
“does the throbbing pain in my hip mean that for the next hour or so I should land differently when I run?”,
“is the polenta that I just ate looking for a quick exit the way it went in?”.
The fact is that I am putting my body through an unthinkable amount of physical discomfort and I’ve got aches in places in mo body that I didn’t know existed and to get rid of that pain there is only on solution - to stop now. To me that is not a solution (with the shield or on it, right?) ja so I’m periodically scanning my body to make sure that the signals coming from there are just literary exaggerations and in reality things are fabulous. I use a really simple six-point checklist:
- Physical condition - ok? The physical state of my body from head to toe.
- Stomach - ok? Does the food stay in, what stays in and what wants to come out? Why?
- Head - ok? Am I mentally clear? Is there any signs of sleep deprivation, do I have blurred vision or do I experience hallucination?
- Mood - ok? Are the motivation and morale at all time high? If not, then why not?
- Hydration - ok? Is there plenty of going in and coming out? What colour is my pee?
- Calories - ok? Am I eating enough? Do I consume enough carbs and fat?
I’m planning to make another power-nap at the second lifebase, but can’t really sleep. There’s no point to just lie there and so I quickly assemble my belongings and head out to the night again, because also the second day is already vanished somewhere.
3 - Cogne - Donnas, 45km and about 2600m of elevation gain.I’m checking the map and with the help of a really eager Italian dude see that the third section is like a city marathon compared to the first two sections. On the map it even seems so easy that I decide to head out wearing only a t-shirt. Because really, the first 18km are uphill and the last are downhill, how hard can it be? Just to let you know that there is about 10km worth of road over the course of those 340km that one could call “walk in the park” and none of those kilometres were during this section.
The night is pretty eventless and somewhere at the 133km mark it is time for another power-nap despite the fact that there is a local enthusiast ringing the cowbells 24/7 about 10m from me. It is amazing what just 45min of sleeping can do to your mental state. I went to bed in a pretty beaten up mood, but came out feeling like a champion. Two girls and the dog (Tuuli, Leanne and Indy) are here and I show them how to do proper deep squats and sprint off into the woods like the two previous days didn’t exist.
I reach a huge lifebase after yet another really enjoyable city tour where life is buzzing like in a gypsy-camp. There is someone shaving in the shower, there are people eating like there is no tomorrow and in the sleeping room two guys are trying to insert plugs into the nostrils of a lady who snores. I have a small glass of beer, a 90min beauty-sleep, listen to some advice from a guy that as been here many times, eat as much vegan food as possible and head out to move closer to my goals. The sun is shining and life is grand!
4 - Donnas - Gressoney St Jean, 54km and about 6000m of elevation gain.The sun did set eventually, all the flowers have died and this stage must be a living nightmare. The almost non-existent small hill on the map eats flatlanders like me for supper and there is only one option to save what is still left to save. I make another power-nap in Rifugio Coda and that is again one of the best calls that I make during the race. Despite the fact that this 54km section has taken me and Ben, a Danish guy I teamed up with to share the workload almost 24h, the going is still very good and from time to time we both even make some moves that might resemble something distantly related to running to the untrained eye. After a long day at the office we reach a small village called Niel where Tuuli and Leanne are already waiting. Another mandatory power-nap and a pasta, couple of hugs that are loaded with energy and the last push before another big lifebase.
By this point I’ve gone further both time- and distance wise and higher elevation wise than I’ve ever been. I have a quiet but wild celebration in my head, pat myself on the shoulder and have a ClifBar with blueberries, because that’s my all time favourite.Lesson #153 - when you are in the mountains and it seems, even if it is just for a second that the weather is about to change, you act now. Yes, now not when it is so cold that your hands are clinched around your trekking poles so hard that you are unable to grab the zipper of your bag to get warm clothes out. What was sunshine about 15min away down in the valley is now horizontal rain that is slowly, but steadily turning into a full blown hailstorm and my sweaty body has turned into a light blue shivering blob. Lucky for me the trail is descending now and I burst into full-on running mode, heading towards a small shepherd hut in the distance. The water in my shoes that is heated up by now is bursting into every direction like a fountain, but at te moment it a very first world problem to me, because I need some warmth. And probably the only place I can get some is that hut over there, 5km away.
I arrive with great expectations and am not disappointed. It is proper party atmosphere here! Cowbells, home made wine and ham. I’m forced to say no to the latter two because the wine might nail me here for another two, three or ten hours and ham because I’m a vegan. Instead I have a glamorous Red Bull, rub my fingers a bit to make sure all then of them are still working and head towards the next big lifebase. Again those winding forrest roads where the time is not measured in hours, but in days. I reach the lifebase and the same continues as before - food, shower, power-nap and I’m off again like Abebe Bikila knowing that I’ve covered way over half of the entire race!
5 - Gressoney St Jean - Valtournenche, 33km and about 3200m of elevation gain.It seems like everything has blended into one, it doesn’t matter what time, day or year is it. The only thing what matters is right here and now. The sun slowly rises, it has rained the whole night and the morning fog makes everything really clammy, but right now this is the place I want to be the most. Feels like I can take in every last detail that surrounds me, even the ones that are in my peripheral field of vision. But despite noticing every last one of them there seems to be no processing of the information, everything is recorded and seems so self-explanatory that there is no precessing needed.
Meditation has been a big part of my life for the last quite many years but I have never experienced being present for so long time in one go. Again, I feel free! We reach the next big lifebase almost suddenly.
Having been washed by the elements throughout the night it is time for a hot shower, big meal and yet another beauty-sleep!
6 - Valtournenche - Ollomont, 48km and about 4900m of elevation gain.
“Everything is under control and unless there is a large scale earthquake or end of the world on the horizon, there is nothing that stops me from finishing this race”,I'm thinking as we storm out from the lifebase. The map shows that this time we will be spending the majority of time at around 2500m from the sea level. That, at least for me is actually good, because the higher we are the better the views. Only low growing vegetation, no trees, lots of large and cold stone formations that make me feel how small and helpless I actually am. I think this section, especially from Rifugio Barmasse to Fenetre du Tsan is my favourite section of the whole course. At some point I even see an ibex from about 20-30m away. The animal really blends into the background and having a closer look it turns out that it is not one, but two, then three and at the end a herd of about twenty gracious mountain dweller.
By now the fatigue has really taken it’s toll and even now, sitting in my kitchen at home, sipping some cold brew coffee I can feel the fatigue I was feeling back then and the sentences are just not forming in my head - I’m too tired even thinking about that effort. Looking at the maps and pictures it feels like I’m teleported back to that precise moment somewhere in those mountains.
Shortly before a huge descent to another valley I get yet another life lesson from the mountains. This time about how to evaluate distances. Rifugio Cunéy, a small hut cut off from the rest of the world seems really close, so close that I can almost touch it. It seems like there is just a bit to go and suddenly the earth disappears from underneath my feet and drops deep into a valley. “Down and then back up and I’m there, no biggies” I think to myself and get to work. Only to discover that the same thing repeats on top of the next hill. The lights are there but the trail drops yet into another small valley. I’m not really sure how many of those drops there are, but at some point I think that the rifugio is a mirage, you know like the ones in a vast desert (my Central-Asian desert story is another story).
The fatigue is hammering hard now and at some point I catch myself pleasantly dozing away as we run in yet another section of those winding forrest roads where the time has stopped. My head is almost resting on my shoulder and the only thing in front of my half-focussed eyes are the yellow heels of Ben’s La Sportiva shoes. The time has completely stopped in this part of the forrest, somewhere at 270km mark. It is just impossible that something as easy as 5km takes that long. To add an extra bonus I step into a fresh pile of cow shit every second minute and am nicely “camouflaged” now. We reach the checkpoint at Oyace with a close to zero motivation and without saying anything occupy two beds and at least I fall asleep in 30 seconds. Ben has some really nasty water damage on his feet (maceration). In short - the skin is really white and it feels like the whole foot is moving inside the skin. It is of course a small literary exaggeration, but I think it paints a picture.
Just for a moment the weight of the whole world and everything bad going on has taken a seat on my shoulders. I’m drinking my coffee and thinking “really dude, WTF am I doing here?”. But as soon as I find my running rhythm again and the sun gets ready to make it’s morning appearance everything clears up and I’m good to do great things again. In a small hut, after about 1000m of climbing we get front row seats with a cup of tea to witness how the sun rises and paints the whole Mont Blanc Massif west from us into pastel orange and yellow. I know there’s still a wee bit of climbing coming up before I see Tuuli and that switches in the eight gear! In addition, once we are crossing the Col Brison at 2500m I can see the next lifebase down in the valley thousand meters below where she is waiting. Looking for the tenth gear I send Tuuli a text that I will be there in no time and we head down. The next thousand or so meters of descent are flying past and we are in Ollomont in no time.
7 - Ollomont - Courmayeur, 50km and 4200m of elevation gain.Right, 45min power-nap is done, now it is time to finish this one once and for all! The first 25km are again “pretty flattish” with a 1300m clinb at the beginning where in half an hour we see sunshine, rain, hail and snow. To compensate for the bad weather there is a 15km section of nice and runnable terrain and even with over 300km done running still feels nice and enjoyable. Now it is just one last, huge 1500m climb separating me from the finish line in Courmayeur. Ben and I are both pretty grumpy by now. We decide to split up here, because his feet are causing him pain and misery and I’m moving really fast. We agree to meet up on Sunday for a coffee and swap some more war-stories.
What follows next is really hard to describe. The last 20km and some extra are some of the most unbelievable that I’ve ever ran in my life. I cover that distance with almost 2000m of descent and couple of hundred meters of ascent in mere three hours. In the dark with only my headlamp showing the way. I feel like I’m not looking where to place my foot next, but am scanning the ground already 5-10m ahead of me. I’m moving almost instinctively, placing my feet and poles where they belong and moving on the muddy and rocky trail firmly and flexibly. The full moon is so bright that at some point I’m really contemplating switching off my headlamp. There is only one thought in my head:
“I don’t want this moment to end!”Even the rocky trail descending down to Courmayeur is amazing and all of a sudden I find myself on the main street, couple of hundred meters from the finish line. It is a bit past 1am.
I’m not really sure what do I feel at the moment, if anything. Warm hugs from Tuuli and Leanne and a cold beer from Leanne’s parents pump at least some life and social abilities back into my system. We drive through the tunnel back to Chamonix for the night and to my surprise I sleep like a log for a whopping five hours. In the morning I can’t stop smiling even if my legs are swollen and stiff and my head is empty like when you have the biggest nuclear-hangover. I’m able to form a bunch of short sentences that all point to the direction where there is food, because the body has just realised that now the heavy stuff is done (at least for now) and it is time to recover!
In the next section I will talk about everything I didn’t talk so far - training, equipment, nutrition and most importantly - the support crew! Stay tuned!