Starting in Courmayeur, the 330 km Tor Des Geants follows two popular trekking routes in the Italian Alps. The course heads counter-clockwise on the Alta Via 2 along the south side of the Aosta valley for the first half of the race, returning along the Alta Via 1 back to Courmayeur.
There are 43 aid stations along the way, along with 6 major life bases, where runners can eat, sleep and obtain medical care if needed, with a cut off time of 150 hours.
This was my first 200+ mile race, although not my first experience with multi-day racing, having run the Grand to Grand stage race. But there’s an added layer of strategy with single-stage races of this distance, in that it’s totally up to you when and how much you sleep. There’s also the 24,000 metres of climbing to contend with – much more than any race I had run before.
My friend Jackie had run Tor Des Geants several times. She’d convinced me that I would absolutely love this race, and I’d always hoped to make it over to Europe.
There is a lottery for the race, with a quota system that allows only a certain number of racers from each country to get in. I was lucky enough to get in on my first attempt, so I dedicated the entire year leading up to the race to training for Tor Des Geants, with a focus on elevation and a lot of ‘time on feet’.
The Week Before Tor Des Geants
I arrived in Chamonix, France about a week early and just in time to catch the final hours of the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) as runners made their way through town after having run 100 miles around Mount Blanc. This was an incredible introduction to the unique world of European trail running, as thousands of spectators lined the streets.
I couldn’t wait to see how our race compares next week in Courmayeur on the other side of the massif, 20 kilometres south-east.
By the next day, Chamonix had returned to a much more relaxed state after the mass exodus of runners. Aside from a few finishers limping around town, you’d barely know there’d been more than 20,000 runners and volunteers packed into the small ski resort in the days prior.
I could finally get settled in and do what I’d come there early to do – relax and acclimate as I prepared both mentally and physically for my own race.
The rest of the week I spent sipping cappuccino, eating croissants, and doing a bit of exploring. I took a trip to nearby Annecy, appropriately referred to as “Venice of the Alps” by locals, with a couple of friends who were in town for UTMB. I would highly recommend this as a day trip to anyone visiting Chamonix. It also happens to be where Salomon’s design centre is located!
I had a couple of short runs scheduled still, so I managed to sneak in one last tune-up workout up the Vertical Kilometre course right above the village but resisted the temptation to dive too much further into the plethora of trails described in the Chamonix Trail Running book I’d picked-up.
Tapering is hard when you’re surrounded by such an amazing mountain playground. Fortunately, there are a quite a few gondolas in the valley, giving you the chance to get up high without much work at all.
Aguille du Midi, the highest in the area, was closed for repairs this week but I still managed to spend an afternoon at 3,275m by taking the Grands Montets from the neighbouring town of Argentière.
Au revoir France – Buongiorno Italia!
After a week of relaxing and acclimatizing in Chamonix, it was time to make my way to Italy. My girlfriend Audrée had just joined me, so after giving her a quick tour of the town we hopped on a bus that takes a tunnel right through Mont Blanc to Courmayeur directly on the other side.
Audrée would be running the Tot Dret, the 130 km distance of Tor Des Geants that begins just past the half-way point in Gressoney and follows the same course back to Courmayeur. This was a recent addition to the race, but with 12,000 metres of cumulative elevation gain it too was set to be a real challenge – definitely a ‘100 mile effort’ and with finishing times closer to most North American 100 milers.
We’d booked a room at Hotel Croux right near starting line, at the recommendation of Jackie who had stayed there each time before. The owners are runners themselves and really supportive of the event, allowing for flexible check-in on the back-end of the race, since it’s tough to know exactly which day we’d both be finishing. The breakfast buffet was also pretty amazing, which would be especially important after the race!
With a couple of days to kill in Courmayeur, I did a short shake-out run the evening we arrived, and we spent a few hours the following day up at 3,466 metres after taking the Skyway Monte Bianco – a very cool gondola that rotates as it ascends Mont Blanc, giving you amazing views of the Aosta Valley.
Then it was time to prepare my kit and to make my way over to racer check-in and gear inspection at the nearby Courmayeur Sport Centre. I find these check-ins pretty exciting, at least at first. But the novelty wore off pretty quickly! This process took almost 3.5 hours as we made our way through a series of line-ups, first to get into the main hall, then to go through the random gear check, to get a bib, to get a GPS tracker, etc. I’ve gotta hand it to the organizers though – they’re quite militant about the whole thing, so I suppose there’s no more efficient way to do this with close to 900 runners.
That night was the race briefing and pasta dinner. I stayed for the former, but ducked out for the latter, as I knew we’d be eating the same pasta and tomato sauce for the next 5 days or so of the race. This was my last chance to load up on pizza instead.
The 2018 Tor Des Geants
The morning of the race finally arrived. I slowly made my way over the start line a few hundred metres away for the relatively relaxed mid-morning start time. This was by far the biggest field I’d ever run in for a trail race, and the excitement at the start line felt more like the experience of toeing the line at a big city marathon.
And we’re off!
I made my way fairly close to the front of the pack and settled in amongst some fellow Canadians who I’d met the day before at our hotel. I knew the elites would go out hard at the front, but I was also worried about getting stuck in the bottle neck when we hit the first trail.
After much fanfare and formalities, we were finally off, making our way through the streets of Courmayeur.
Supporters not only lined the streets in the beginning miles of the race, but on some of the early climbs. You really got the sense that the event is a source of pride for he residents of the Aosta Valley. They made us feel not only welcome but celebrated.
Where did everyone go?
Despite the large field of runners, we quickly began to spread out. I would yo-yo with such a small number of the same runners for the next few days that it honestly felt like there were only 30 or so of us in the race! We began to encourage and support each other, and in many cases developed friendships that are sure to endure.
For the first couple of days we were extremely lucky with the weather. Shorts and a t-shirt, along with arm warmers at night, was all I needed. When the thundershowers did eventually come, it was almost a relief (at first, anyway) from the 30 degree weather.
Many would end up dropping, not from hypothermia as in years past but from dehydration and heat stroke. But you didn’t hear me complaining!
What goes up must come down
My favourite part of Tor Des Geants had to be the surprise waiting at the top of each major climb. Climbing as high as 3,300 metres to reach a col, we’d often be presented with just a small window where an incredible panoramic view awaited on the other side.
Coming from sea level though made these climbs a challenge though. Every step above 2,800 metres or so became laborious. Every breath had to be controlled.
But each view was better than the last, making the effort so worthwhile.
We would go on to tackle some 14 or so major climbs, each followed in turn by an equally large descent. In fact, it’s the descents more so than the climbs that really take it out of you.
No matter how tired you are when climbing, worst case you just need to slow it down. But on some of the extremely technical descents, a misstep could mean the end of your race (or much worse).
At first, it seems practically impossible. Your legs are already so tired after the first 2,000 metre climb and your quads are already crushed from the last pounding descent. But you continue on and somehow start to feel stronger with each passing day.
There eventually comes a time when you simply accept that this is now “your life”. Like Groundhog’s Day, you’re destined to climb and descend for what could be forever!
“Welcome to the half-way point!”, said my new friend Sergio from Italy who I’d been yo-yo’ing with for the first two days.
We had reached the ridge to Rifugio Coda after a long climb, now just over 100 miles into the race. But we still had a series of smaller descents and climbs ahead of us before the next life base at Gressoney which would make for a long day.
I met a lot of great people during the race who I had the pleasure of sharing many hours of the trails with. Competition quickly gave way to camaraderie, as we worked together to inch our way to the finish line.
People like Julien from Switzerland, Matt from South Africa, Sergio from Italy, Glenn from New Zealand, Sandra from Costa Rica, Kristian from Poland, Arri from Israel, and the Americans Kevin and Jenn, and Chad who I crossed the finish line with.
A few who had run Tor Des Geants before were able to offer advice that really helped me along the way, and being able to pass both the good times and the tougher times on the trails with some new friends made the entire experience even more memorable.
Lord of the Rings
As I was leaving La Gruba in Niel on the third day, a volunteer explained excitedly that the most incredible valley awaited me at the top of the relatively short 800 metre climb ahead. She described it as like something out of Lord of the Rings.
When I reached the top of Col Lassoney I found myself completely alone, surrounded by dramatic peaks cloaked in clouds, and ran towards one of the most incredible sunsets I’ve ever seen.
There were quite a few moments like this, but this was one of the few times in the race when I felt completely alone. I sense that this is a difficult feeling to achieve when you’re in the Alps, compared to the relatively untamed wild here in British Columbia. So I did my best to really soak in these moments whenever I had the chance.
Much more so than any other distance, a 200 mile race like Tor Des Geants really is more of an eating contest than anything else. While many runners had the luxury of a support crew who could bring them food at the major life bases each 50 km, I was stuck eating basically the same thing 24 hours a day. The aid stations were very well stocked and the volunteers were incredible, but there just wasn’t the variety that I was used to compared to North American ultras.
I had quickly grown tired of the pasta with spaghetti sauce, so my go-to became orzo in soup – up to 3 bowls of it at a time. I’d supplement this with some cheese and hard-boiled eggs for some fats and protein, along with a zip lock bag full of cookies, crackers, dark chocolate, and dried apricots for the road. That essentially became my routine for the remaining 30-40 checkpoints. Food was fuel and nothing more.
I’d brought plenty of Clif bars as run fuel but surprisingly all I really wanted while on the run in between aid stations was Clif Gels and Blocks which I didn’t bring nearly enough of.
If I was to do this race again, this is an area where I could significantly improve. Aside from the other obvious benefits of having a support crew, food is easily the biggest one in a race like this.
Are we there yet?
I learned a lot in Tor Des Geants about what to do and what not to do to manage the building fatigue and exhaustion that comes with 100+ hours of continual motion.
First of all, caffeine doesn’t cut it. You can force yourself to stay awake through the night during a 100 miler with Coke and coffee, but by the second night even caffeine pills will barely make a dent.
Even during the day, I’d sometimes find myself literally falling asleep on my feet. Some runners reported losing minutes at a time while continuing to climb, like when you’re driving and realize you don’t remember the last couple of miles.
Something that can help to avoid the zombie march is to eat. Fellow-Canadian Stephanie Case told me that she’d learned this at an earlier Tor des Geants, that when caffeine fails what you likely really need is more calories. But at some point, you’re also going to need a nap.
I’d originally planned on sleeping for about 45 minutes every 24 hours and only at night, but I quickly had to adapt to reality. What seemed to work best was to sleep not as recovery after a big effort, but more as a preemptive measure before a big climb or particularly long leg of the race.
I experimented with ‘power naps’ as short as 10 minutes, but their effects were short lived. Over an hour, I would get diminishing returns, and found myself naturally waking up after 45 minutes anyway. In the end, I decided that 25-45 minutes was the sweet spot for me, something which would buy me another 8-12 hours of movement before my next rest. In fact, this strategy worked so well that I’m considering incorporating a nap or two into my next 100 mile race as well (anything longer than 24 hrs).
The home stretch
I had done my best to enjoy every step of the final climb up to Rifugio Frassati, to endure the thundershowers knowing they would be my last, and to soak in the amazing sunset that followed while beginning to reflect on everything I’d experienced up to this moment.
I’d been running with Chad for the past few hours straight, so we decided to stick together as long as we could to push each other towards the finish.
I found myself standing atop of Col Malatra at 2,936 metres at about 6pm, with the sun setting behind Mont Blanc in the background. After 100 hours on feet, all that was left of the 340 km journey was to drop down about 1,700 metres over the remaining 20 kms back to Courmayeur.
We arrived back at Courmayeur around 11:30pm, running our way through the darkened streets on pure adrenaline. 107 hours and 31 minutes after leaving on Sunday afternoon, I returned as the 63rd finisher of the 2018 Tor Des Geants.
Recovering from Tor Des Geants
For the first two days, I pretty much did nothing but nap in my hotel bed with my feet up in an attempt to manage the swelling in my lower legs, in-between frequent meals. My feet were dry, calloused, and blistered, and I still don’t have complete feeling in my toes even now months later due to nerve damage.
By the second night of recovery, the night sweats had come as my body tried to rid itself of the bloating. I would eat what I thought was an adequately sized meal and 45-minutes later be suffering hunger paigns again. I looked like the Michellen Man from the waist down, a skeleton from the waist up.
Audrée’s race had gone extremely well – she’d finished 8th in her division in just under 41 hours, and she was in much better shape than I was!
I did manage to get mobile again by the time the awards rolled around a few days later. It was great to see everyone I had met during the race, all rested, cleaned up, and elated to have pretty well all finished.
In the two weeks that followed, we travelled around Italy and did quite a bit of walking and site-seeing (and gelato eating). All of this movement was likely a good way to get the blood flowing, although compression socks were vital for any travel by bus or train.
By the third week, my appetite had returned to a relatively normal level. The swelling in my legs had completely subsided along with most of the residual fatigue. Having returned to Vancouver, managing jet lag was the only remaining challenge, although I still had some weight to put back on.
A few who I’d met at the race were already running and racing as early as the following weekend. But my coach Eric Carter who had helped me through my training this year stressed just how important it is to return incredibly slowly to training. He’s seen athletes who jump back in too quickly suffer the consequences for the next 6 months, with some taking up to a year to recover fully.
This event was by far the most well supported I’ve ever done and I owe so much to the thousands of incredible volunteers who helped to make it happen.
2019 would be the 10th anniversary of Tor Des Geants, so I had no choice but to put my name back in the lottery. I had hoped to be able to apply everything I’d learned and, perhaps with the help of a crew this time, improve my time and really ‘race’ it this time.
Alas, I was unsuccessful in the lottery. Instead, I’ll be racing the Swiss Peaks 360 in the nearby Swiss Alps. The point-to-point race travels 360 km from Oberwald to Le Bouveret near Geneva. With 25,500 metres (83,500 ft) of cumulative elevation gain, this will no doubt make for an equally beautiful and even more challenging adventure!
Stay tuned for a documentary about my experience at Tor Des Geants which I plan on publishing to my YouTube channel in the coming weeks.