Thursday 5 October 2017

Tor des Géants race report

A slow scan of the marquee, assessing the carnage of 250kms in the Italian Alps.  There is a man openly sobbing as he takes off his shoes and socks. Someone is face down on the table next to me.  Crews and volunteers are scurrying about attending to the needs of broken runners.  The Tor des Géants signature dish of pasta with tomato sauce is served up by the tonnes. Layer upon layer of clothing are piled on, before departing for another cold night.  

I arrived at Valtournenche life base with the view of have a quick turnaround.  Quick change.  Quick bite to eat.  Two hours later I was still sitting there.  Moving things around in their protective plastics bags.  Repacking the same things in the same rucksack I’d carried for days.  Trying to squeeze everything I didn’t need or couldn’t carry back into the iconic yellow duffle bag. Have you ever seen a toddler with a toy shape sorter trying to squeeze the rectangle shape in the triangle space?  That was me.  Physically, I was ok.  Legs and feet were not too shabby.  I’d just lost the ability to think for myself.  

This was the dream.  This is what I signed up for.  And nothing short of a limb falling off would have made me want to stop.  I had only given myself one shot to get this right.  The build up to the start line was bad enough, as I was highly-strung for weeks.  The fear was quite overwhelming.  I wasn’t bothered about the distance of 330km, that was a piece of piss.  Nor even the vertical gain of 31,000 metres.  It’s advertised as 24km but everyone knows that’s just adding up the peaks.  It was my general well-being that concerned me.  I get so delirious and incoherent during ultras.  Not in a zen-like trance woo-woo way.  I mean completely off my tits, stumbling about kinda way.  I could train myself to deal with race profile, but not the fatigue and sleep deprivation that came with it.  It was to be a great exercise in self-care, something which is not my forte.

I was lucky enough to get  race place through my support from Montane.  I vividly remember my email correspondence when Montane first considered sponsoring this event.  Although the event had the reputation as one of the world’s toughest and it was a great match for the brand, there was just no way I was tough enough to do it.  It just wasn’t for me. The same way I was never going to do the WHWR (3 times) or Spartathlon (tick) or 24-hour running (6 of them).  Let’s just say I lack commitment to my non-causes.  

So I made it to the start line and started to calm down.  Just get it done, that’s all.  I had no aspirations about time and position.  With 10 years ultra-running experience, it has been a long time since not finishing was my biggest fear.  

Courmayeur to Valgrisenche

The race was late starting, as everyone had their GPS checked before entering the pens.  Then we were off, weaving through the busy streets of Courmayeur.  The town really embraces the race and there’s a real community spirit all along the course.  The streets were packed with cheering people and the sounds of cowbells.

Off the roads and onto trails, we were soon going up.  Bottle-necked or boxed in, there was no point stressing about it as it would soon thin out. Easy easy that was plan.  The weather was sunnier and warmer than predicted.  Thank goodness, because I’d got myself into a right tizzy the night before about not having enough winter clothing.  Or at least not having enough space in the yellow duffle to pack everything I needed.  I think the guy behind must have been wearing all his clothes or had forgotten he was in for the long haul, because he was sweating so heavily he was dripping all over my ankles!

Col Arp at 2571m was the first mountain pass and a sharp introduction to what lay ahead.  Then the path widened and the field split up, so everyone could get into their groove.  Although I’ve always been against taking photos during races, this was to be an exception.  With space to stop to capture the moment, I took out my GoPro.  I would have helped if I hadn’t left the SD card in my case at the hotel.  Doh!  iPhone shots will have to do then.

All pretty quiet and peaceful down in La Thuile then we started to bunch up again towards Rifugio Diffeyes.  It was busy with trekkers and noisy with cheers and cow bells in my face. I don’t really recall much of the journey  to Pass Alto and down to Bivacco Promoud.  But I remember feeling the effects already on the long zig-zag climb to the third peak of the day, Col Crosatie.  I had to force myself to put fatigue aside and focus on the ropes on the exposed sections.  Descending into a beautiful sunset and had moment of sobering thoughts passing the memorial for Chinese runner Yuan Yang, who lost his life there after all fall at TDG 2013.  Although the memorial is a lovely gesture, it’s a harsh reminder that we are never in control of our destiny.  

As night-time arrived I felt drained when I hit the Planaval checkpoint.  Another 7km of flat or undulating trail to the first life base in Cogne.  I was enjoying just uninterrupted running and the silence and peace that darkness brought.  I was snapped back round when I misjudged the teeny step up on a bridge and decked it.  Bleeding knees and skinned hands already.  Joy.   

Cogne was a flurry of activity.  It’s the first of six life bases, which are about 50km apart on the course.   Life bases are generally much busier than checkpoints as runners are reunited with their precious yellow bags and therefore hang about longer than intended.  I found a quiet space away from the crowds to sort out what kit I would need for the next section and to keep on top of footcare.  

Valgrisenche to Cogne

It was easier to the follow the route during the dark, as my headtorch picked up the reflective route markers.  I followed the undulating path all the way to Chalet de l’Epée and welcomed the warmth inside.  I stopped for a few coffees.  I needed the caffeine, the heat and a short break.  I milked it for way longer than I should have.

I ended up following fellow Montane athlete Stefano up to the top of Col Fenêtre.  I didn’t even realise it was him at first, as I was just transfixed by the reflectors on the back of his Salomon shoes.  It helped me keep a consistent rhythm.  We crested the top and I pushed on down the steep scree and slippy descend, ending up on my ass a few times.  Stefano was wearing S-lab Sense, which was a brave choice.  He’s probably still there.

A pleasant long descent into Rhêmes and I met up with fellow Brit and Scot, Kirsty Williams.  She looked in good spirits, even if she was wearing her leggings inside out.  

It was then a long slog up to Col Entrelor. I did most of ascent with another guy, but we never spoke.  Heads down in the darkness, apart from brief glances up to see how far up those headtorches were.  The chap stopped for a rest a few hundred metres from the top - or maybe it was to shake me off his heels.  I kept going until my headtorch battery ran out and I stopped to change it.  Even just stopping briefly made me chill down real fast.  I was bonking and in dire need of sugar, but I was adamant I wanted to get to the top first.  Stupid mistake, as I was staggering, shaking, slipping and was practically crawling when I reached the top.  I had to sit down at the makeshift checkpoint tent and suck down a Gu gel.  The volunteers gave me some coke which had turned to slush and gave me brain freeze, but I felt better almost instantly.  I had a angry word with myself about keeping on top of fuel.

Watching the sunrise behind the mountains with the long descent into Eaux Rousses, it was good to have the first night behind me. Monday was a new day and a new box of treats.  Despite studying the profile of the race from the comfort of my sofa, it means nothing until you’re actually in the thick of it.  Pulling out the race book to see what delights awaited, I nearly fainted when I saw 3299 metres.   I knew it was coming up, I just wasn’t aware of the sequence of monster climbs.  I chatted to a few runners in there, including another Scot John Moffat.  I guess everyone lingered a little longer delaying the inevitable.

Time to bite the bullet and get the show on the road.  On the long series of switchbacks, I passed a Spanish girl who asked if my leg was ok.  I had even realised it was cut and covered in blood.  Maybe I did it whilst stumbling about the last peak?  Who knows.  It didn’t hurt, but my ankle really did.  Out of nowhere I had awful pain on the outside of my left ankle.  I couldn’t run on it, which was quite distressing.  

Soon Lakeland legend and Ireland’s finest, Paul Tierney caught up with me.  I was really surprised to see him, as Paul eats mountains for breakfast.  He was having a tough time and had stopped for a few breaks/naps.  We climbed most of Col Loson together.  Him moaning, but he’s Irish so everything he says comes out hilarious (not a hate crime, Paul!) The climb got real steep and tough near the top.  My lungs were on fire and struggling to breath. I was literally hanging over my poles on the long and very slow stagger to the top.

There was a bunch of guys near the cairn/trigpoint (what are they called in the Italian alps?) but I had to plonk my ass down and take a break.   My chest hurt real bad.  I think it was a combination of cold air, exertion and generally being a bit too high for a sea level lungs.  

Paul had pushed on.  Probably the prospect of being stuck with me forced him to get his shit together, but I caught up with him again at Rifugio Sella.   I had some oranges and some bizarre conversations with a couple of Greek guys before embarking on the never ending switchbacks to Cogne.  Switchbacks were definitely going to be the theme of the week.  I appreciate it’s better than the alternative, but it didn’t make it any less frustrating.    I could see where I needed to be.  I just wasn’t dropping any height and it wasn’t getting any closer.

It was really heating up and I felt like a burst ball when I arrived at the second life base in Cogne.   I tried to eat some food, but it was struggle.  I tried to sleep, but that wasn’t happening.  It was too noisy and my mind was buzzing.  I know I’m quintessential British and therefore a bit prudish, but I saw enough body parts in there to last me a lifetime.

As sleeping wasn’t an option, I had a quick massage and the physios strapped up my dodgy ankle.  Quick wash - my one and only wash of the week - got changed and set out again.  After wasting 3.5 hours there!  3.5 HOURS!

Cogne to Donnas

I left along the long dirt track and road, before turning off on to the next climb.  It was pretty warm and I started to feel quite tired.  Typical, eh? Paul stormed past looking revitalised.  I knew he would go on and have a fantastic race - and he did.  

I wanted to push on to get over Fenêtre di Champorcher to see the sunset, but I was done in.  I arrived at Rifugio Berdzè a freezing, shaking, bonking mess.  It was less that 300 metres to the summit, but it looked steep and I was all over place.  I had to go straight to the bunk room, but I couldn’t sleep because it was freezing.  The snow on the ground outside might have been a sign.  I stupidly chose the bed next to the door, so it was drafty and people were coming in and out.  I put on all my clothes, including hat and gloves and managed about 30-40 minutes sleep before my wake up call by the volunteer.  As there a two hour time limit at checkpoints, volunteers ask how long you would like to sleep for.  This ensures you don’t overstay your welcome and gives you time to sort yourself and supplies out.  

Down in the main area, I had few strong coffees and got my headtorch sorted for the night ahead.  This is when I first met my new French friend Rodolph Mercanton.  He was laughing at me wrestling to get my waterproof trousers on, while trying to stop my teeth rattling in my head.  We made the final ascent together, chatting away.  I was then complaining I was too hot, as wearing everything I had.

It’s then long 30km ‘downhill’ to Donnas.  Which surprisingly has a lot of uphill too.  And quite possibly the longest 30km of my life.   Down rocky paths, through fields, clambering over boulders and crossing some dodgy suspension bridges.  I could hear the ferocious sounds of the rivers and knew in the darkness I missing out on some spectacular waterfalls.

Through Dondena and Chardonnay, I expected the third life base at Donnas to be the next stop.  There was another aid station at Pontboset, which really unreasonably annoyed me.  I wanted to sleep and I had another 10km to go.  I know it’s a mountain race, but I also got unreasonably annoyed at more uphill when I knew we had to drop to down 300 metres.

I’d never used an altimeter or elevation as a measurement before.  In racing and training I’ve always gone by distance or overall ascent.  Another reason why this was so far removed that anything I had done before.

I arrived in Donnas just before 4am.  Two hours later than I expected too.  Generally, everything took two hours longer than I expected it too.  I declined offer of food from the volunteers, found a bed and collapsed.  Lying there listening to the sounds of synchronised snoring.   How was I ever going to sleep with all this snor… zonk!  Out cold.  Not wake-up calls, no alarms. I just wanted to sleep until I woke up.  Two hours later I woke up startled, sat up bolt upright trying to work out where I was.

My face felt like it was on fire.  The room was really hot and my skin had been exposed to some pretty harsh elements, with warm days and cold nights.  My lips were so sunburned and swollen, I look like someone from those botched plastic surgery programmes.  People pay good money to look as weird as I did.

After spending a further 90 minutes faffing about packing things, changing, eating and rearranging what I packed, triple checking I had all the mandatory kit, I set out for what would be the longest section.

Donnas to Gressoney

I knew this was going to be big section and could take up to 24 hours.    I was less daunted by the prospect when I was greeted with a beautiful crisp and clear morning.  Through the town, the toots and cheers from passing cars gave me a nice boost too.   

The undulating trail up and over to Perloz was beautiful.  The village was quiet and quaint, but was soon awoken with the loud sounds of cowbells, which signaled my arrival.  The charming gents who manned this checkpoint were a delight.  They spoke no English and I speak no Italian, but somehow we managed to have a highly amusing conversation.  

The sleep had done wonders and I felt more energized.  Hiking up to La Sassa I met another Brit, Paul Drew.  We chatted quite a bit at the checkpoint, before I pushed on.  We would meet again later in the race.  Quite a few times.

The climb up to Coda was simply stunning although my footing was pretty unsteady on the boulders, so knew I was on the danger side of depleted reserves.  Dining alfresco at Rifugio Coda, with backdrop of beautiful mountains was probably one of the highlights on my race.    As was the view over magical greeny-blue waters of Lago Vargno.

The race profile makes this section look slightly undulating at best, but there’s a reason why it’s notoriously known to be the toughest section.  It’s fecking relentless!  When I arrived at Rifugio della Barma, I planned to make it a flying visit, but on learning that the next checkpoint was 5-7 hours away, I decided to bulk up on pasta and soup.  Just as well I did, as their pasta was the best!  You learn to appreciate the little things when you’re out there.

My French friend Rodolph arrived as I was leaving, but soon caught up and we stayed together for a bit.  Even the short climbs were tough and my brain was struggling to manoeuvre on the downhills.  There was a really steep few hundred metre climb before Col della Vecchia which was a tipper for me.    I was getting really cold, really hungry and sleep deprivation was taking it’s toll.  As darkness was falling, I keep pushing to get to the checkpoint.  I should have stopped and sorted myself out as it took way longer than I anticipated to get there.

By the time I got to the makeshift mountain checkpoint I was a wreck.  The volunteers were amazing and got me blankets, heaters, sweet coffee and a place to sleep for a hour.  I was completely gone, but they truly saved me.

I left feeling reborn and embarked on the journey to Neil, which would take about two hours.  It was a fairly pleasant descent to Neil.  I met up with Paul Drew again, who told me his brother, Craig was crewing for him and had been waiting in Neil since 4pm.  It was now nearly 10pm. Like me, he was wildly underestimating journey times.

I had a short stop and pasta refuel at Neil before rejoining Rodolph again for a the ascent of Col Losoney.  I was starting to scales things down into recognisable chunks.  Less than Ben Lomond to do I kept telling myself.  I do laps of that in training,  And 13km to the next life station, then that’s the biggest section done.

I was joined by another French runner, Nicolas Moreau who took it upon himself to sing me songs, which was lovely albeit slightly surreal.  He not only helped to raise my spirits, but also push me back up every time I fell or stumbled backwards.  As my cadence was slower than usual hiking pace, I was finding the balance quite tricky.  

There was a long gradual descent to Gressoney.  On fresh legs, that would be a flier.  On my legs it was on the tolerable side of arduous.  I arrived at the life base in Gressoney, a mere 20-21 hours after leaving the last one.  I found a bed in sports hall and tried to sleep.  I think it may have been a squash court, so everything echoed.  It was too uncomfortable and it was bloody freezing.  Someone was using a machine to polish the floors outside too.   I did manage some broken sleep though.

After a rest of sorts I sat in the dining area trying to sort out my kit.  This was a biggest downfall in my race.  Not having someone to do the thinking for me.  Unsupported was proving harder than I thought, but I was still getting the job done.  It was after all, all about just getting the job done.  

Some whatsapp chat with my Centurion team mates informed me that Spain’s Javi Dominguez had won and smashed the course record in 67 hours 52.  Truly amazing.  I couldn’t help thinking this guy had finished and was probably celebrating in Courmayeur and I was only 205km  in - sitting eating breakfast and lubing up my feet at the same time.  Then Marco sent me a picture of Cairn, so I was sitting crying, eating boiled eggs (I’ve been Vegan for years!) whilst lubing up my feet.  What a sorry sight that must have been.

Gressoney To Valtournenche

With 205km complete, I had Gressoney mentally marked as the over half-way point.  It’s the fourth of six life bases, so passed the point of of no return.  I’m lead to believe this is the life base with the most drop outs, so if you get out of here alive you’re on the home straight.    You just need to get out.

After 3:40 hours, of which possibly an hour was spent sleeping, I headed out to the beautiful morning.  We had been truly blessed with such great weather.  The sun was shining, the skies were blue and the view over to Mont Rosa was stunning.  I stopped to take a picture  and then my Garmin froze and switched off.  Despite carrying a battery pack, I could get it to power on.  Surely not being able to Strava is a legitimate reason to DNF ;-)

It was a good hefty climb to Col Pinter and I was joined on the final ascent by three Italian men out to see some of the race and they insisted on keeping me company to the top.  Two were in front, with one behind ringing his cowbell and shouting “Allez.  Allez.  Go Scottish”.  On day four of this epic adventure, you can only imagine depths I had to go to to deal with this.  Even better when one of the men front commented: “But you are very young” and the cowbell ringing behind responded.  “No.  No way”.  Steady on, mate.  We stopped for selfies at the top and I left them - still chanting “Go Scottish” and ringing that cow bell.  Despite my obvious ageing, they made me smile a lot and put spring back in my step.  As did the lady who stopped me on the descent just to give me a hug.  

It was a long, but enjoyable trail down to Champoluc.  It was really heating up and the sun was piercing my skin.   I stopped at an unofficial aid station, which was a restaurant that had put on a big buffet for runners for no other reason other than they wanted to be part of the race.  I tried to get my Garmin to switch on with power, but no joy.

Through Champoluc and into the real checkpoint, which was pale by comparison to the restaurant, I went straight through heading to Saint Jacques with Rodolph.  I lost him on the climb out of the town, as I was really warm and a bit wasted.  

I stopped at the river to soak my buff and wet my face.  I was really tired and wanted to lie down, so I lay back listening to the sounds of the river and watching the shapes the clouds made.  I remember doing this with my Dad as a child and I wondered if kids still did this. I was brought back round when I realised ants were crawling all over me.  

The climb to Rifugio Grand Tourmalin was a real struggle.  I was beyond tired and was dragging my sorry ass up the hill.  After what seemed like an eternity, the refugio appeared in the distance and the familiar sounds of cowbells.  

Do you want food? Just sleep.  Do you want hot drink? Sleep.  Anything before?  Just sleep.  I could have stayed there forever, as it was a the best bed ever!  Who knew sleeping in a dormitory for 45 minutes could feel like total paradise.  

I woke feeling quite refreshed.  Down in the dining area, I joined Paul Drew and ate some pasta.  He had been looking out the window and was very apprehensive about the killer final ascent over the mountain.  I turned to see what he was looking and noticed that it did look particularly nasty. But I pointed out he was looking in the right direction, as I could see the runners out the window behind him on a less precarious switchback route.  

With new found energy, I tackled with final ascent and started on the descent to Valtourneche.  As daylight was fading, I got out my headtorch and decided to call Marco and Cairn, who had recently arrived in Courmayeur.  I soon as I heard their voices I started crying, even though it was the best I’d felt all day.   Physically I was holding it together. Mentally and emotionally, I’d lost the plot.  

Paul soon caught up with me again and we did the last few kilometres together before headed into the life base.    He was pretty excited about the pizza his brother was going to get him.  Craig failed to find a pizza in Italy.  He was going for a sleep and I was adamant I was going in for a quick turnaround and out again.  

Valtournenche to Ollomont

My quick turnaround turned into two hours of pissing about with my kit and messaging on my phone.  I just discovered my friend Jamie was pulled out of the race on day two with potential kidney failure.  Marco assured me Jamie was ok, as he had been in regular contact with her.

I should have just slept, because as soon as I got going, fatigue and breathlessness came over me and I had to stop at the next Refugio for some sleep.  The cold night air was continuing to hurt my chest.  Every breath hurt, so was resigned to shallow breathing.

I was joined by the endurance machine that is Harriet Kjaer. She was going for a 30 minute power nap, so I cut my planned 60 minutes in favour of some company for a while.  I enjoyed spending the next hour or so chatting about life and running.  I’ve met some seriously badass women through the sport, but I think Harriet is a rare breed.  She has a wealth of experience in mega-distance running and was fascinating to talk to.  We were so busy talking, we missed a turn and realised a while later we hadn’t seen markers for some time.  Back tracking a kilometre or so, we were amazed we missed it as it was so clearly obvious.  

Fenêtre du Tsan was the gift that kept on giving.  It was a relentless undulating slog.    Every time we started losing height, I wanted to have a tantrum.  After what seemed like HOURS, I reached the top and started on the switchbacks down.   

I was now getting passed by the speedsters in the Tot Dret race, the new 130km race which started in Gressonay at 9pm on the Wednesday.    I step off to let them passed.  I expected to see loads of the 400 runners, but there weren’t that many.  I later learned that only 80 finished, as the cold on the Thursday night ended most of their races.  This could be hear say though.  

The sunrise over the mountains was so beautiful, I had to stop at take a few pictures.  When I arrived at Rifugio magia, I stopped for some coffee and watched the flurry of Totdret runners appear and leave.  Just sitting there.  People watching.  Like I was sitting in Starbucks or something.

I was joined on the next few ascents by Sarah from the USA, so the time just zipped by.  She’d done the race in 2015 when it was stopped due to bad weather on the third day, so had returned to get the monkey off her back.  She has also been out recceing the course, so it’s safe to say we had different race approaches.  This was the only time it rained during the race and I was actually quite enjoying it.  

After being a bubbling wreck on the phone to Marco and Cairn the night before they were coming out to meet me in Oyace, just to say hello and offer some moral support.  I left eating too long - as always the checkpoint was way longer than I expected it to be - so I was a bit worse for wear when I got there.  I spent an hour with them before Marco told me I wasn’t making an sense and should try for sleep before my two hour checkpoint allowance was up.  And he also had to get Cairn out as he was eating all the chocolate tarts that were provided for runners only.   

I found a bed and set my alarm for 50 minutes.  Sleeping a cot bed in a room of about hundred noisy people was becoming easier.  I felt so sick when I woke up, so I sat on the edge of the bed with my head between my knees trying to stop the world spinning.  A nice chap gave over to see if I was ok, which I thought was really kind… followed by ‘sorry to ask, but are you leaving soon.  My friend asked me to ask you for the bed’  The awkwardness on his face gave me the giggles.

Up I went to Col Brison.  Just a Ben Lomond up I reminded myself.   From the top you could probably drop a stone down onto the Ollomont, which was 1100 metres below.  It was that steep.  Which could only mean one thing.  A gazillion switchbacks!

Ollomont to Courmayeur

Night time fell just before I hit the final life base in Olloment  I expected to get there feeling happy and relieved knowing that the dream was to be reality, but I was void of feeling.  If anything I was just relieved that I wouldn’t have to squeeze everything back into that yellow duffle bag again.  

I was feeling pretty apprehensive about the night’s forecast and freezing temperatures.   My Centurion team mate Neil (who was ahead in the race) had sent pics from Rifugio Frasseti in a blanket of snow, so I knew I had to prepare for cold.  I shunned the communal changing area in favour of a cramped toilet cubicle.  I was trying to gauge what I would wear for cold day in the hills in Scotland - then add an extra layer.  Then trying to think what I would need for the next day, with a frazzled brain. What seemed like an eternity of faffing, packing and spending too much time messaging on my phone I exited the small wooden toilet cabin looking like snowboarding Barbie!  

Then proceeded to go for a 30 minute nap and a mega feast of soup, pasta and sweet black coffee.  Every pairs of eyes in the room was on the guy devouring a pizza which his Mum had brought him.  

Heading out under a blanket of stars for the last night it was so peaceful and still.  I felt cold, but there was no part of me that was specifically cold.  Hand were ok.  Feet fine.  Face and head covered.  It was just a  full chill and shiver that I couldn’t shake.  Another recognisable chunk to break it down.  Just a Ben Nevis to go.  ‘Just’ the UKs highest mountain on the 4th night out. Just.

After an hour or two of hiking I arrived at Rifugio Champillon.  I went inside for hot soup to warm up.  Just an excuse to get out of the cold.  I probably overstayed my welcome, by simply sitting there with the thousand-yard stare.  After what felt like 15 minutes, but was probably closer to 45 minutes I forced myself to leave reminding myself It was only another 400 metres.  The sky was so clear and I seemed so high up, I couldn’t make out what were stars and what were reflective race markings.  I was just getting colder and colder.  I just didn’t have the energy to fight the cold. Throughout the race I probably wasn’t eat for a normal day of living, let alone long days in the mountains. I tried to listen to a comedy podcast to take my mind off it, but that just became irritating.

I reached the top and heading down the switchbacks, stumbling as I went.  My poles were out in front like speirs, using them to catch me every time I fell.  It was fairly effective.  When I reached the farm/checkpoint at Pointelle, I was really burnt out and wanted to sleep.  There weren’t any beds there so I would need to push on another 10km.  I was hoping to miss dawn, as that’s always the coldest, but hey ho.  Off I went.  I got colder, incoherent, dazed, confused, angry, frustrated and on the cusp of hysteria.  By the time I reached Saint Rhémy en-Bosses (which was unsurprisingly longer than 10km away) I was a mess.

As always the volunteers were amazing and really helped he. I was given some soup, pasta and a seat next to the bar heater.  I couldn’t eat the soup because my hands were shaking so much.  I wanted to leave, as I was worried I would have to go through another night, but I was ordered to have some sleep.   And when I woke up after 10 mins, I was told to sleep some more.  Another 30 minutes and the volunteer was standing over for my wake up call.  I had slept with my hood up and had dribbled a puddle of saliva inside it.    

After getting sorted, I used the facilities (an actual sit down toilet - bliss!) and caught myself in the mirror. I barely recognised myself.  My face was so swollen and my eyes were so puffy, I couldn’t even see my eyelashes.   If I hadn’t already made a complete spectacle of myself at that checkpoint, I got myself locked in a toilet.  After what seemed like an eternity of shouting, four men used a large knife to unlock the snib from the outside.  I left fairly sharp after that.

The cold night had really ruined my lungs and I couldn’t stop coughing.  Even running on the flats was a big effort as my legs felt like lead and pack seemed to have doubled in weight.  But I forced myself to run, mainly through sheer panic of having to go into another cold night.

Hiking up, I started counting to 21 over and over again.  Cairn’s birthday is January 21, so it seemed like a good number to focus on. Despite being drained of energy and enthusiasm I couldn’t help marvel at how beautiful everything was.  I was still taking photos, so that proves that I was absolutely FINE.  

I passed Merdeux and the climb became more arduous.  I stopped in a Rifugio Frassati fairly swiftly downed a few cups of coke and got going again.  

With all the snow fall, the ground was really slippy, slushy and muddy.  It was hard to stay upright on the path.  Going uphill was one step forward and two slides back.  I was getting braver with the cows (I have a big fear of cows) on the course and walked straight through a herd of them without so much as a second thought.  It may have been courage or a blatant disregard for my life.  Bit awkward though as one cow was being mounted at the time.  And I’m not entirely sure she was up for it.  

Up to the last and one of the highest peaks on the course at Col Malatra.  I knew the final push involved a rope climb, which was a riot.   You know the monkeys from Jungle Book?  That was me. Swinging about trying to hold on to the rope, find my footing and clutch my poles in my other hand at the same time.  There are many better ways I could have approached.   The family behind me, who were praying I didn’t fall on top of them, took this picture of me and kindly emailed it.

There was a real muddy descent, which found me on my arse a few times.  At the next checkpoint, which had the enthusiastic bell ringer from Tourmalin I was told I had 15km to go.  I expected there to be another almighty climb, but there was only a short ascent and then it was all downhill.  Which was great, but there no sense of urgency from me.  For most the week, I’d completely forgotten I was in a ‘race’.  I stopped to speak to people, had a sit down to have a drink and enjoy the view.  I helped some young girls who asked for directions.  Lord knows where I sent them.   I even phoned Marco to find out where I was.  That seemed perfectly legit to me.

Down through the valley, I couldn’t stop coughing.  My lungs hurt so bad and my head ached.  Reluctant to take any painkillers,  I thought I would stop for a lie down and close my eyes.  After what seems like a few minutes, I opened my eyes to see a family standing over me looking very concerned about my state.  I tried to explain the race, but they weren’t aware of it.  I got up staggering, mumbling and confirmed I was ok slurring something about just being a little tired.  Covered in mud from previous falls, I definitely looked homeless.

I was so close to the end, but I couldn’t push myself.  My legs didn’t hurt, they were just tired.  And brain couldn’t talk to my legs, so everything felt wired up wrong.  I jogged a bit, coughed a lot and fast hiked.  Just don’t stop I told myself over and over again.  Many times that day I was convinced I was in Scotland.  In my head, I ‘knew’ I’d been there before and spent ages trying to remember who I was with.  

And then there it was.  Courmayeur.  I was back again.  I’d made it.  I burst out crying.  Basically the theme of the race was only to cry when I was happy.  With tired legs, it’s a good hour from Bertone downhill on the switchbacks.  Counting to 21 over and over again to try and keep some sort of jogging rhythm going.  Smiling at everyone who cheered for me, even though it cracked my sunburnt lips every time.

Closer to the town, Sarah McCormack (Irish Queen of hotpants) appeared in her usual effortless bounding style.  She said I didn’t have long to go and Paul was waiting at the finish line.  I hit some roads and then through some parks before joining the pedestrian area in the town.  My lungs were screaming but I couldn’t walk now, I had to save face.  Someone shouted that I had 1km to go and I didn’t think my lungs would hold out for long.  I passed the familiar shops and restaurants, a sea of blurry smiling faces and the sound of cowbells.  I could see Marco, and Cairn was in the middle of path poised ready to run with me.  Then I was over the yellow runway to the end.  Job done in 127 hours.  Which I hope is not an omen, as I don’t fancy chopping off my arm with a penknife.    I never knew at any point where I was in the race, but I finished 18th female (I think) and 162 overall.  Nearly 900 started and 461 finished.

I doubt I will do many things in life that could possibly compare to the Tor des Géants.  It was an amazing experience.  There were moments I felt I was just torturing myself, but I never wanted to stop.  The drive to finish overpowered everything.   Prior to the race, I always thought this was going to be a personal challenge and a solo adventure, but I was never alone.   From the people I met in the race, the supporters out on the course, the volunteers who sorted me out when I got in a right mess, to the dot watchers back home, so many people played a big part in my journey.  I’m truly thankful to everyone.  

The aftermath wasn’t as painful as expected, but the swelling I had was immense.  I can’t quite describe the fatigue and hunger I had in the week after.  It was like having necropsy and worms, whilst my head was in La La Land.    

Maybe one day I will return.  For me, it’s one of those races you need to do once to learn how to deal with the enormity of it and then go back and approach it differently.  I’ve never had to deal with sleep deprivation before, but I know now why it’s a recognised form of torture.  Managing sleep comes with experience.  Despite only ever wanting to finish, I’m over-thinking all the things I did wrong.  But it is what it is.  I’m a Géant.  That’s what.  

Special thanks to Montane for planting this seed, the opportunity to be a part of something truly magnificent and all the great kit.