Courmayeur – September 16 2014
South Tyrol – June 30 2014
I remember it clearly as if it was yesterday! It was June 30 2014 and I was on a hut-to-hut hiking trip in the Dolomites. I was sitting outside Rifugio Averau – in the Cinque Torri area – enjoying the amazing sunset and telling myself maybe I just wasn’t cut for the mountains… The day before we had trekked a 20 kilometers in constant heavy rain, with snow still covering route signs in higher parts of the route. After reaching a col near Lagazuoi, with night falling, I found myself in thick low cloud, and heavy winds! I was basically lost and unable to take a stupid bearing, something I had dozens of times before. The cold winds were beating the col but that was the only point where I could get a phone signal! I tried to call the hut on the Lagazuoi and let them know we were close but was having trouble finding the trail because of the snow and poor visibility. I was scared because on the wet map I could see cliffs with a dead drop and I couldn’t determine in which direction they were. I was so cold and tired, I didn’t trust my compass skills anymore! My supposedly IPX7 smartphone fried while I was trying to make the call and it was where the hut phone number was stored. I eventually managed to call 112 using another phone. After some arguing, they connected me to Soccorso Alpino (mountain rescue), I gave them my GPS coordinates and they passed them on to the hut owner. By the time I hung up, I was shivering and had lost dexterity in my hands to the point I was unable to unwrap a thermal blanket: I was so cold I had probably lost fine motor skills. I eventually had to cut through the thermal blanket plastic container using my one-hand Victorinox knife. Then we set two of my flashlights to strobe just to make my position visible and after less than 20 minutes the hut owner found us. Within half an hour I was sitting in the warm and cozy hut while enjoying a hot tea. It had turned out to be nothing more than a half-an-hour scare and great lesson about hiking in the mountains!
The following evening, while staring at the sun setting behind the mountains, I was replaying the whole event in my head, telling myself that the next holiday I should maybe haul my ass on a Greek island and steer away from mountain trails…. It was then that I overheard a group of people talking about ultrarunning! At first, I wasn’t sure what it was all about; I thought maybe it was a gastrointestinal condition of some sort – and in hindsight, I may have not been completely wrong either. It turned out to be a long distance version of running, generally involving trail or mountain running. The more I listened the more I grew interested in the topic. They were talking about races in the mountains over a hundred kilometers long. They went on describing races around Mont Blanc; in the desert; the Rocky Mountains; etc. After a while they started talking about a more recent event, a 330-kilometer long epic race called the the “Tor Des Geants”. This race seemed to be considered one of a kind and had supposedly gained the reputation of being a life-changing experience. They called it the “epic journey”… Neurons generate electro-chemical reactions which turn into thoughts. Sometimes, a neuron will respond to its own electrical activity and turn a thought into a dream: that’s exactly what happened in that moment!
That night I promised myself one day I would complete the Tor Des Geants! At that stage though my only racing experience consisted in a flat 10K trail run where I ahd taking a smoking break halfway through… I wisely figured I’d better play it safe and give myself seven long years to live up to that promise. Little I knew I would end up at the start line of the TDG way earlier than that…
Dublin – January 7 2017
After a few ultra races and completing my first 100-miler – the Wicklow Way 100 – in December 2016 I decided that I would finally register for the Tor Des Geants draw. At first, I was hoping to get a place at the UTMB instead because I thought I still didn’t have enough experience to be able to complete the TDG 350-Km race in the Alps. A 170-Km in the Alps like the UTMB would definitely help build up to that goal. That reasoning had nothing wrong, especially considering the UTMB and TDG even share a small section of their course.
Then on January 7, just another ordinary day in a nobody’s life, while browsing the web, I saw a photo of a triple amputee competing in a Spartan mud race… I have always hated two things in my life: people who enjoyed telling me what I can’t achieve in life and self-imposed mental limitations! Unfortunately, we can’t avoid running into morons who absolutely love telling us what we can or cannot achieve. However, I am the one who creating self-imposed mental barriers: at this point in life I should have known better than telling myself I couldn’t do something just out of self-doubt or maybe fear! Yes, the Tor Des Geants was an incredibly ambitious goal in my unimpressive ultra-running career but the truth was, the best event to get ready for and find out if I could achieve the Tor Des Geants could only be… the Tor Des Geants!
Seeing that triple amputee swinging in the mud made me feel like an ass. That was the moment I mentally realized I would have been capable of completing a 330 Km ultra endurance race in the Alps. Or rather, that was the moment I quit telling myself I couldn’t do it! On that same day, I took a sample 100-miler plan from Jason Koop’s book “Training Essentials for Ultrarunning” and designed my 7-month draft plan for the Tor Des Geants. It was still nearly two months away from the draw results and there was no guarantee whatsoever I’d win in a place but in my delusional state, I was already dead sure 2017 would be the year of the Tor Des Geant!
The draft plan completed, I weighed myself to discover the post 100-miler celebrations and December indulgence had made me reach a shocking weight of 91 Kg. I had never weighed this much in all my life! I could deal with that easily in 7 months but my previous ultra record was not reassuring; in fact, it was mediocre at best: if my previous races had to be a predictor of my performance in the TDG, the odds weren’t looking that good at all. Much more so considering the dropout rate in the TDG ranged between 40% and 50%.
|AON 2015||11:15:32||53 Km||Last runner in|
|WWU 2015||7.31.38||51 Km||Bottom of the pack|
|WWR 2015||DNF||127 Km||DNF after 74 Km|
|WW 50||16:19||80 Km||Last runner in|
|AON 2016||10:23:35||53 Km||Bottom of the pack|
|WWU 2016||7:22.51||51 Km||Bottom of the pack|
|WWR 2016||20:06:00||127 Km||29th runner in out of 48 starters and 34 finishers|
|WW 100||34:57:00||160 Km||Last runner in|
On the other hand, I knew there were other factors I could try to improve.
1. For a reason or another, I had always organized my previous ultra races around my life commitments. This time around, I would organize – most of – my life commitments around the TDG. The Tor Des Geants wasn’t going to be another race, in 2017 it was going to be my one-shot attempt to a long-coveted dream!
2. I had never, ever made an excuse for my previous performances failures, or mistakes. It had always been on me, something I took special pride in. My last mistakes were my best friends! Or as some put it, there is not such a thing as mistakes, only lessons. I may have had only a bunch of local ultra races behind me, only 2 over 100 Km but I had been through so many useful “lessons” and made so many “best friends”, that I had gained considerable experience by nearly always running along the same single hiking trail: the Wicklow Way!
3. I had about 8 months before the Tor Des Geants. That’s 245 days or exactly 35 weeks: an awful lot of time to get mentally and physically ready for anything… even a 330-Km, 24,000+ alpine ultra endurance journey!
Dublin – February 27
The preliminary draw list became available online and, with my heart pounding, I slowly scrolled through it, carefully checking each and every name to finally find mine in row 420! This was a raw list with multiple coefficient entries and without taking into account country quotas but after a quick calculation, I figured that high in the list, I had to be in. The final list was released the following day confirming I had a sure place at the Tor Des Geants!
The training progressed without interruptions. When I had started on January 7, I was still suffering from minor injuries from my 100-miler: metatarsal pain, sesamoiditis, Morton’s neuroma on the left foot, plantar fasciitis on the right one, Achilles’ tendonitis on both, knee pain: you name it and I probably had it! It may sound dramatic but it was the same post-race shit most ultra runners temporarily suffer from, nothing more, nothing less. This time around I decided I would try running through my injuries rather than taking a break and resume training later as I had done for previous injuries. Luckily, I found out I was able to run on a treadmill without much pain. The more I trained though, the more injuries I seemd to keep getting. Each time I had to figure out a way to treat it, hoping the new injury would slowly heal without having to take a break from running. First I got sciatica pain due to a piriformis inflammation, then I injured my lower back. Eventually, I got the usual achille’s tendonitis and fasciatis – two favorites of mine!
Training wasn’t just physical, it couldn’t be: I had no idea what would take to train for such a challenge! If I wasn’t runnign or working, I was busy reading books, blogs, articles on ultra-endurance training, mountaineering, or history. I was listening to dozens of podcasts about ultra running: Science of Ultra became a daily staple and listened to some of the podcasts again and again. In spite of all the hours researching how to train for ultra-endurance races, I found very little – and mostly conflicting – information on how to train for a 200-mile events!
I eventually decided on a training plan and stuck to it, unsure of whether it would be the right approach or not: the only way to find out was by trial and error and I figured I’d have to adapt depending on how I was feeling and responding to the training. On April 21 I finally went back to the trails and started hiking roughly 50 Km every Saturday with 20 to 35 Km on Sundays. During the week, I’d put in another 30 to 50 Km, with 440.77 Km in July and a peak weeks of around 140 Km. Probably too much for my body and ended up having to taper drastically starting mid-August due to fatigue and problems with my legs and especially the ankles.
On January 7 I had weighed myself and got shocked at my weight. The flow of whiskey and junk food that ensued my 100-miler in December 2016 got me heavier than I ever remember being in my life: close to 90 kilos! I was ashamed to have let myself get in such poor shape in such a short time! Weight loss was inevitably turned into another goal as it’s considered a predictor of performance! Besides, you’d have to be insane to bring extra weight across the highest massifs in the Alps…
By the time I was packing my bag to fly to Geneva, I had logged 2107.77 Km and hammered myself through thousands and thousands of calisthenics! I had also lost nearly 17 kilos and even if I wasn’t going to the Alps with as skinny ass as I had initially planned, I wasn’t too far away from the target weight either! I went to the Dublin airport with a 30 liter backpack and and 130-liter duffel bag both full with gear, clothing, 4 pairs of mountain running shoes, 2 pairs of hiking poles, shells, softshells, widshells, tights, shorts, shirts, hoodies… you name it I had it!
Even if I knew my training could have been better or better distributed, I had no remorse and no regret about it. I had given all I could and once the going would get tough, I knew I the obsessive preparation would give me the confidence needed to get me through the rough moments!
I knew training in the Wicklow mountains wouldn’t get me adapted to altitudes of the Tor. Terrain specificity was also limited considering the hours long alpine climbs or descents on technical trails. I knew this would be a limitation but there’s rarely such a thing as perfect preparation. Together with a few hundred other runners who didn’t live close from the Alps, I would have to deal with it! After all the Tor Des Geants wasn’t about showing up at the start line perfectly trained to enjoy the views. The goal was to endure the difficulties and smash through and beyond all the mental and physical boundaries!
Courmayeur – September 7-9 2017
The excitement the days before the race was far greater than I had predicted. I had managed to sleep 3 hours on the Thursday night, then 4 on Friday thanks to a few grappa shots, and eventually 3 hours the night before the race thanks to a sleeping pill I manage to get from Leanne, one of the Irish runners who has already completed the TDG the previous year! I should have seen it coming but instead completely underestimated the the point to which the TDG would get to me… it would be just another of the many mistake made during my 167-week long adventure to the Tor Des Geants start line! I told myself the next time, I would make sure to show up with sleeping pills powerful enough to put down a horse! In any case, I most runners would All said and done, it didn’t really matter!
Alpine Shock: Courmayeur to Valgrisenche – 50 km / 4747+
It was just less than 42 moons later that found myself at the start line of the “Epic Journey”!
I was surrounded by hundreds of other runners, the loud speakers pounding music and only a few minutes to go. My brain was churning with excitement so I decieded to do one last gear check to keep my mind busy and mostly make sure all the zippers were closed, all straps tight, and the poles were correctly secured to my running pack. The h-hour of 10:00 am came and went but there was no go ahead; all around, the excitement and enthusiasm were beyond description. I didn’t want to entertain these thoughts so early but couldn’t help thinking almost half of the people there would never make it back to Courmayeur or cross the finsih line. We all knew the staggering numbers: the Tor Des Geants consistently had an attrition rate between 40% to 50%! It goes without saying that the high degree of uneasy uncertainty also applied to me – more so since I had never attempted anything similar before and that many people who complete the Tor, often to do so only after one or more attempts.
At last, 21 minutes later than scheduled, we went off racing through the streets of Courmayeur: it looked like a high speed 10K but din’t last long: as soon as outside Courmayeur the fast pace gave way to a slow-moving traffic jam all the way up to Col Arp, the first the 25 cols above 2000 meters on the TDG course.
Halfway through the climb the sky cleared and the sun finally broke through the fast-moving clouds: it became bright and warm. Close to to the the top I felt nauseated and got a thobbing headache due to the lack of altitude adaptation so once I reached the col, I only stood there briefly to catch a glimpse of the view and began the long descent to the valley furhter below.
The trail became wider and it was easy to keep a good pace or pass people who were slowing down or stopping to take off layers. I quickly reached the first refreshment point of the race where some friendly Alpini – the Italian Army mountain troops – were serving drinks and food. I had a few cups of coke and went going down again toward La Thuile. The mountain trail was followed by a series of swtichbacks crowded with runners; I noticed a few of them were using a new type of short and curved hiking poles which I had never seen before.
The checkpoint in La Thuile was crammed with people shoving and pushing: we looked like apocalypse survivors scavenging for food. I scavenged for some myself, refilled my water flasks, and headed out as quickly as possible to begin the climb to rifugio Deffeyes and Passo Alto, the following high col. While walking out of the town I chatted with a Parisian who was also attempting the Tor for the first time. We talked about our training and how hard it was to train for a race in the Alps while living somewhere else, especially a flat region like greater Paris. Unless of course you are willing to spend your weekends doing repeats at Mont Martre…
The climb from La Thuile to Passo Alto – over 2800 m – was very long and in certain parts also steep but went fairly smoothly. Once again I briefly felt sick while getting to and over the col so I quickly descended to Promoud, the next refreshment point, where I got squares of “crostata con nutella”. The food so far seemed to include crackers or bread; cheese; cooked ham; salami; crostatas with either jam or nutella (Italian hazelnut spread); slices of oranges; and occasionally some bananas. Drinks ranged from water to tea, coffee, coke – sometimes other sodas – and “sali”, a sort of homemade energy drink that tasted like sweet pink lemonade.
THE NUTRITION STRATEGY
All my life, I had always had a iron stomach. For my first ultras, I didn’t even worry about nutrition: I tried different foods but never had any issues. During my first 100 miler in 2016 – the Wiclow Way 100 – I got seriously sick. Even if it was the only time, potential nutriton problems on a multi-day race like the TDG couldn’t be underestimated. My plan was very simple and consisted in diversifying the food intake as much as possible to make sure I wouldn’t get sick due to eating only or mostly one single food.
I left the checkpoint but stopped a few hundred meters away from it to briefly enjoy the view as the setting sun sent pale streamers of purple and orange across the clear blue sky. I decided to get ready for night running and put on the headlamp, a backup flashlight in my pants’ right pocket, and slid into my heavier Windstopper windshell. I crossed the small alpage scattered with short pines and began the climb to second col as the sun was dipping lower and lower. The trail soon turned into an endless sequence of steep swtichbacks making the climb to Col Crosatie more and more tiring. I swtiched on the headlamp as I went up through giant slabs of rock. The terrain now was really technical but luckily the last stretch to the top was equipped with ropes. I could hear behind me a man and a woman talking about an American runner who a couple of years earlier had taken a fall right here and had to be rescued by helicopter due to the injuries sustained. The thinner air still made my heart pounding faster and when all of a sudden I almost lost my balance: I jolted with adrenaline and used my poles to keep myself from falling backward. Once firmly back on both feet I looked over my shoulder and realized how dangerous it could have been if I had fallen down on the rocks below. It was not exposed but with so many rocks, even rolling back down for a few meters could have had serious consequences.
I reached the col Crosatie and began going down hoping to quickly reach the next valley. Wishful thinking as descents in the Alps are never-ending and the more I was close to reaching the the valley, the more I had to keep going down! After a good hour we finally hit a tarmac road; some volunteers were standing watch there so I asked how far the life base in Valgrisenche was. The life bases are the big checkpoints where you can have a hot meal, shower, medical attention, massages and get your feet taped if skin is coming off them. Yes, a lot of nice stuff but you are not going to be the only one wanting a butt massage and a cuddle: unless you have time to spare, queuing for more than than a quick meal or maybe a shower and short nap can become a dangerous luxury…
I was told that the life base is only a couple of kilometers away… liars! You’ll learn on the TDG that many people, volunteers who are not familiar with the surroundings, are space- and time-impaired! They are as well intentioned as it gets but some of them are really challenged with estimates. And as much as you truly love 99% of the volontor for being so selfless, kind, and always trying to help you, sometimes you can’t help but think that they are reporting shorter distances just as a form of sadistic torture!!!
Three kilometers later I was still climbing through a wood and started coughing and breathing heavily so I decided to use my asthma inhaler. Not sure what to expect from such physical effort, before starting I put two inhalers in my backpack and three more in my yellow drop bag! After a brief pause, I resumed the climb and finally got to Valgrisenche where I was immediately handed my yellow drop bag and directed towards a small two-story old building. I walked and I asked one of the volontors, a slim brunette in her late 20s, where I could change and she apologized saying she only speaks French or English. I replied in French saying it wasn’t a problem and she explained the showers were upstairs but she’s wasn’t sure if I’d have to wait and that the room next to her is for changing and sleeping! I thanked her and walked into the dorm/changing room. I knew what to expect as I had read 5 books and about two dozen race reports on the Tor: the Valgrichence life base was not the best for comfort.
The room was lit by old-fashioned blinding neon overhead lights and was with cots, people lying under old woolen blankets as well as a few half-naked runners changing into clean clothes. I scanned the room for a seat and realized only available place was an old wooden bench on the far left corner. I sat down and started getting undressed; In the cot just opposite me there’s someone – or something – twitching and moaning under a blanket. Next to it there were two men: an older one stripping his clothes off while his pal was holding a faded towel to shield naked body from everybody else. Byond the stripper and the nudity marshall there was man lying on a cot and looking pretty bad. Next ot him sombody was holding his hand as if on a deathbed while what must have been a doctor was explaining him it was exhaustion and that if he could sleep a little, it would help getting him back on his feet. When the doctor left his friend – the man holding his hand – started saying that maybe he should consider ending the Tor there. The guy must have had a personal supporter pass to be there but he didn’t seem to be so supportive after all: if a qualified doctor had just stated he could maybe resume the Tor if he managed to sleep, then why the hell he telling his friend he should consider quitting? It looked like the patient had chosen the wrong friend for the job: it was like going to a surgery with a grave digger instead of a doctor!
I decided it was none of my business and tried to focus to clean off my sweat using my Wilderness wipes and save time by not taking a shower. The yellow bag fell off the bench and half its contents flew onto the muddy ground too. Luckily everything was stored in drybags but fleece zip top I had just removed got soeaked in muddy water! In the meanwhile the entity under the blanket was still twitching and moaning… After spreading a tube of cream between my legs, I managed to get changed, and put on the Ultra Raptors GTX! The bad news was I couldn’t close the bag because it was too full so after begging for help, a very nice volontor agreed to attach one of the two pair of shoes outside the yellow bag using a plastic shopping bag. I went back to the changing room to get the drop bag adn while I still struggled trying to close it, I kept hearing moans coming from under the blanket. I got seriously worried the thing under the blanket was about to turn, like the old lady in Dawn of the Dead 2004, steering a panic and causing a stampede of half-naked runners…
The distraction didn’t last very long: I was feeling really exhausted and even feverish! What’s even more worrying was that I had done less than 50 Km and had over 280 Km still to go. I always knew the Tor Des Geants would get ridiculously difficult but even in my wildest dreams I hadn’t imagined to be in this state after only the 50 Km; it wasn’t even supposed to be one of the hardest sections! I was truly on my knees already, feeling nearly as bad as at the end of my first 100 miler. I started wondering how far I could possibly make it; I had predicted I’d handle it well through the first 100 K and then it would gradually become more and more difficult as the distance increased but in the Tor everything seemed incredibly hard, from the first climb down to the last descent! I wondered if maybe I was feeling so bad because I got the start line sleep-deprived or maybe it was the altitude, the very long climbs… whatever it was, I was clearly starting to doubt myself and that wasn’t leading anywhere good! My shitty Garmin Fenix 2 was dead so I decided to switch on my phone to check the time… I found several texts, words of encouragement, my Facebook page was flooded with cheering, some people were following me and reporting my progress. Friends from work, fellow mountain runners from Wicklow, high-school friends, childhood friends, college friends, Caroline’s family and even some people I didn’t know were cheering! Maybe because of the fatigue, I really got emotional and couldn’t hold tears! The French volontor came by and asked if was ok! I wanted to tell her that I was feeling way better than whatever was twitching and moaning under the blanket next to us but instead just told her I was just tired but perfectly fine!
Then just did what I had planned to do when the going would get tough… I had two mental last lines of defense to help me fight through the difficult moments or when simply wanting to quit! The first one was a playlist with 7 songs that I had listened to day in day out for the 245 days prior to the TDG while visualizing completing the epic journey. These melodies had become psychologically powerful enough to bring me back from a coma! The second one was a set of apparently unrelated phrases, something I could easily remember and repeat even in a semi-unconscious state! They were just phrases or quotes I had picked from books, maybe documentaries, or in some cases, I had made them up myself! These simple phrases were emotionally powerful and during the 35 weeks before the TDG, I had constantly associated them with mental visualization! I knew well at some point I would have had to resort to them, I just never thought I would do it so soon, especially not after the the first 50 Km!
I blasted music into my ears and started repeating the glorified speech… It’s not a race you idiot, it’s a mindset! Stop fighting it, it’s going to suck, it’s going to be hard anyway. It’s about digging deep, at every step, every climb, every descent! You can do it because you have it! We all do! It’s about that unyielding desire that makes us accomplish the seemingly impossible! It’s only about how badly you really want to be back in Courmayeur! It’s about the Ultimate Equalizer: that unwavering resilience that drives you to never quit and never surrender! It’s not a race: it’s a mindset!!!!!!! Never let your past, your doubts, fears define your limits…. And on it went for a few of minutes! As much as they may sound funny empty talk, these words and the music had followed me through most of the 2107 Km training runs, the endless days and nights in the Wicklow mountains all the way through Courmayeur! Those words and that music had become my Tor Des Geants war cry and were going to stay with me all the way to the finish line!
The adrenaline rush worked magic and elation soon replaced the dooming sense exahustion. I stood up, grabbed my Grivel bag and headed out to drop it with the volontor. I was about to start leg two when I remembered I hadn’t eaten yet: I asked if I could still grab some food and they said it was fine! I entered the building next to the drop-bag tent and ordered a dish of “penne con pomodoro” and “patate al rosmarino” (penne with tomato sauce and rosemary potatoes). The place looked like a normal osteria, except that most people sitting at the tables were wearing running tights, thermals and waterproof shells. I ate quickly while listening to other runners around me tell stories of previous Tor editions, events that had made the history of the TDG.
I left the Valrgrisenche life base and jogged down a grassy trail and then began walking over a concrete dam. Only 48.3 was the turning point of my mental battle to complete the TDG: It’s not that it got easier from there onward; in fact it got harder, much harder, way fucking harder after every step, every climb, every col… As self-doubt goes though, during the ensuing 131 and some hours, voluntarily dropping out didn’t even enter my mind! I never, ever doubted again I could or even would complete the Tor Des Geants in time! Of course, that I didn’t doubt it didn’t mean it couldn’t or wouldn’t happen! All of sudden I caught a glimpse of the moon rising above the mountain ahead. I briefly paused, stared at it, then howled like a restless dog! All of a sudden I could see a dozen headlamps looking down toward the dam from the woods furhter up! It didn’t matter, nothing mattered anymore… I just grinned, then whispered to myself “Cogne I’m coming!“ and sprinted off into the cold clear night!