Gressoney St Jean – Valtournenche: 33 km 3187 D+
I suddenly opened my eyes and realized somebody was shaking me awake and had probably been trying to do so for some time. “You need to leave. We are closing down.” the volontor said in a friendly tone. I checked my watch and had slept just over 40 minutes.
I slowly walked out of the dormitory and found my drop bag where I had left it. I looked for the can of Red Bull I had hidden behind it: it was still there. I snapped it open and downed it almost in one go, then grabbed the bag and headed for the way out. While passing the food tables I noticed a bunch of Red Bull cans were still up for grabs so I took and drank the second one on the way out. I had overdosed on Red Bull the night of my goodbye party in Brussels ten years earlier and had never drunk a drop since. Even only the smell still made me sick but at this stage, I was ready to drink or eat anything that would help me stay awake: if they would have served dog food with caffeine, I would have eaten it without as much as the blink of an eye!
Outside it was really cold so I started walking fast and saw a French runner I had chatted with earlier in the Life Base. He told me he was the editor for a French trail running magazine and we jogged out of Gressoney together, chatting about the way ahead. Almost failing to make it to Gressoney in time had left the sign and wanted to get first-hand information on the terrain ahead to make sure there would be no more unexpected surprises. We tried asking a few questions to a few other runners but none seemed to have a clue a what lay ahead – except for long climbs of course: that along with knee-mauling descents was guaranteed all the way to Courmayeur!
Stages with odd numbers were supposed to be not as hard as the even ones and, according to official stats, stage 5 was the shortest of all with a mere 33 Km and just over 3,000 meters of cumulative climb. From the reports, it didn’t seem there was anything crazy technical so I had changed back into my cushy Akasha to give my feet a much-needed break before the more challenging stage 6. There are only two major cols in this section: Col Pinter and Col di Nana, both just over 2700 meters high. That meant the climb to Pinter would be some 1,200 vertical meters: no cinch, especially this far into the Tor, but not the most demanding climb on the course either!
Once we began going up, I slowly got into a faster pace, catching up and passing scores of runners working their way up the trail. I still had pain in my right ankle but going up wasn’t as bad as going down; besides, at this stage having pain was probably a good sign meaning you could still feel all your limbs. I eventually reached a hamlet and the next checkpoint, Rifugio Alpenzu.
Inside it was cozy and warm too. The dining hall was strewn with small, wooden tables and chairs. Most were occupied by runners eating or sleeping with their heads resting on their crossed arms. I was standing and nibbling some food when I noticed a few espresso cups lying around – I asked if I could have one too and one of the servers yelled “un espresso” in the direction of a small window into a wall. In the meanwhile, a woman sitting at a table explained she was a “scopa”, the Italian word for “broom”, which nearly caused a stampede when a dozen people started running for the door. I thought about running to the bathroom and climbing out of the window too. I had been hearing this word being used all the way since Courmayeur and in Perloz I had asked what it meant: It’s how way they call volunteers who “broom” or rather “sweep” a race course to make sure people who miss the cut-off times get off the trail. The woman quickly added she was there ahead of time and that we had nothing to worry about, at least not yet. The euphoria of surviving stage 4 had made us feel as if completed the TDG was a done deal but the truth was, we had only passed the 200 Km mark and weren’t even two thirds into the journey! Besides, I had left Gressoney with no margin whatsoever on the last cutoff time so nothing could be taken for granted yet. In fact, the woman being in the hut was a stark reminder that a DNF was still a possibility.
I got out and started to climb the remaining 1,000 vertical meters to Col Pinter. Once I got to and over the col, to my left I noticed a rope attached to the wall: I froze immediately fearing it would be an another exposed ledge; I took out my flashlight and shined it down to the right – the drop must have been only a couple of meters at most, enough to break a leg but nothing that would make me feel dizzy. I carefully went down and at the usual yellow shelter, I got some water and coke. I resumed the descent in the pitch dark night, boringly staring at the headlamp beam on the ground. It lasted for what felt an eternity; then the sun began rising and I finally reached a hamlet with a few old stone houses. The altitude on my Foretrex 401 showed this couldn’t be Champoluc yet so I kept going till I noticed the TDG banner and a “Ristoro” sign in front of one of the houses. Before going inside I checked the altitude again trying to figure out where I was but by now I barely remembered my name so I just decided to keep things as simple as possible: I went in and just asked!
It was Rifugio Aroula, just a refreshment point on the way to Champoluc. The place inside looked really nice and the food much more varied than the average TDG refreshment point: freshly baked bread, pastries, orange juice, several types of cold-cut meats as well as plenty cheese. I didn’t think twice about it and ate as much as I could – this was my chance to refuel and avoid overeating crostatas. I even managed to get an espresso again. I thanked the owner who explained we could sleep in Champoluc if I wanted to, then left.
I went through a bunch of abandoned, derelict log-houses; then continued descending till I finally reached the town which basically consisted of a street with a few buildings and houses; the checkpoint was at the end of the main street in a building resembling a school gym. I walked in, gave my number, and said I wanted to sleep; a woman showed me to a hospital stretcher in huge, quiet room where a few other runners were already sleeping. I followed the usual ritual of folding and securing my poles to the pack, positioned it as a pillow, and lied on the stretcher. My knees were killing me badly so I pulled a mini-tube of Freeze out of my pack and applied it generously to both knees, then fell asleep almost instantly.
When I was woken up, an hour and a half later, my knees were still hurting and I could barely straighten my right leg. I applied more Freeze hoping it would help, then limped out of the dormitory into the entrance hall. The light blinded me and as I walk out I heard a voice calling my name: I spun around saw Guillaume who announced me he was dropping out of the race because of his knees. I could relate and asked him if he was sure but he repeated in an assertive manner he was done with the Tor! The way he stressed he couldn’t bear with the knee pain anymore reminded me of the woman who couldn’t stand the sleep deprivation anymore: two fairly common issues driving people out of the TDG but the way they announced they were dropping out was strikingly similar. We shook hands, then I gave my number to a volontor and checked out of the place. The highest attrition might have been during section 4 but quite a few people seemed to be still dropping out of the TDG or being disqualified for missing cutoffs.
I walked through a park, then onto a paved road, I was feeling exhausted. By now, a nap wasn’t enough to feel good again as earlier on: sleeping had become a necessity to survive and keep going. It was just past 8:00 am in the morning so I had nearly 11 hours to check into Valtournanche and 13 hours before the check-out cutoff. I had less than 20 Km to go and only another climb with slightly more than 1,000 vertical meters: I could do it fairly easily but my goal was to gain back some margin over the cutoff times for sections 6 and 7. I knew I needed it badly because the more I kept going, the more exhausted I felt, the slower my pace was, the more I I was likely to miss one of the final cut-off times.
I had started the Tor exactly 94 hours earlier, run, hiked, and crawled some 221 kilometers, and slept around 5 hours: thinking about these figures suddenly made me feel good about how far I made it. And the even better, that fleeting moment of self-absorbed glory was that it appeared to generate a miraculous natural pain-killing effect. It wasn’t just ego-tripping, it was mental preparation for yet the exhausting task ahead.
I climbed for nearly two hours into a grassy and windy landscape, the weather looking more and more menacing, then I finally got to Rifugio Gran Tournalin. It was a hut in the middle of a plateau just a the bottom of a cirque before Col di Nana. The sky was covered by dark clouds and it had been drizzling for a while so I was happy to get inside the Rifugio. The hut must have been built or renovated in recent years because inside it looked almost brand new. In the main hall, which had dining tables all around, there were windows from which it was possible to enjoy a 180-degree scenic view of the valley below.
I ordered some pasta and one more espresso: they both tasted great. This section so far had turned out to be the one with the best huts and the best food. Compared to the mind-screwing torture of stage 4, it was feeling like a food-tasting, hut-to-hut trekking adventure. I geared up, got back out into the rain and headed uphill: there were only 200 hundred vertical meters left to Col di Nana – the last climb before the endless descent to Valtournanche. I got to the col quickly but had to slow down on the descent both due to my knees, ankles, and overall fatigue. I quickly lost count of how many runners passed me on the way down. After a couple of hours under light rain I finally ran into somebody who said the Life Base was not too far away and by 3:30 pm I was actually able to check in: 3,5 hours ahead of the in cut-off time. I got my yellow bag and walked through a theater hall where plenty of runners sleeping on the seats and heaps of smartphones being re-charged at every corner. I followed a volunteer upstairs and found the changing room with the showers. When I took off my socks I found out my left ankle too was now missing a few layers of skin. Other than that, I still didn’t have a blister in the strict sense of the word. It was good news, especially considering many other runners by now had their feet wrapped in bandages.
The Feet Strategy
Since January I had been applying a camphor spray to my feet almost daily to strengthen the skin. Two weeks before the Tor I started applying a more expensive spray in the morning and a cream at night: the products did what they promised and the skin of my feet became harder or at least as hard as it needed to be to withstand the rigors of 250 kilometers in the Alps.
Once again I was undecided whether to go to medical and try to get my ankles taped or take a shower: I opted for the shower again because it was quicker and it made me feel great. The only problem was I’d have to slide back into the same softshell pants I had been wearing since day one: it sure wasn’t pleasant. I had bought a second pair with me to the Alps but left the other pair in my travel bag to make space for warm weather gear. A regrettable planning mistake but maybe it could still be fixed.
Suddenly the possessed guy who had been sleeping in the granny’s room in stage 4 walked in complaining the doctor had told he had asthma. I asked him if he wanted to use my inhaler but he said he was OK, he had never had asthma before and he said he was OK. Then I asked him if he wanted some holy water but of course, he didn’t get it and stared at me. I loved the guy, this far into the Tor, some of the people you had been going meeting repeatedly, were turning into strangers you had shared so much with, they didn’t feel like strangers anymore.
I started pushing the clothes into my yellow drop bag and try closing the zipper: as usual, it was a painful process. And maybe this time even more than before: I asked for help and two other guys in the changing room obliged. We started to push the bag clothes and pull the zip so hard while making some weird sounds: the people outside must have thought we were having some kind of kinky sex. After closing the bag and thanking those who had helped me, I went back down to the large white tent where the food hall was. A volontor insisted that I sit down and asked me what I wanted, then she went off and quickly came back with dish full penne al pomodoro, a dish full of parmesan, and even checked if I preferred sparkling or still water. While eating, I talked to a couple of people about the next section – just like me – they were both attempting the Tor for the first time. I looked at my watch and had been there for nearly two hours so I decided it was time to vacate the premises. It was almost 5:30 and I was now 1.5 hours ahead of the out cutoff time: I had caught up and the odds of getting to Courmayeur by 4:00 pm on Saturday were no longer looking as slim as earlier on!
I would soon realize that the Tor never ends before Courmayeuer! The very moment I thought it was about to get easier, I was soon to be reminded I needed to dig deep… at every climb, every descent, every step! The Giants of the Val d’Aosta were about to test me, forcing me to prove once again how badly I wanted to cross that finish line!