The Fight of the Three Cols: Valgrisenche to Cogne – 58 km / 5082+
Once past the dam, I followed an uphill trail through a pine forest. The moonlight was beaming through the trees creating an almost magical scenery. Or at least it would have been that way if the half a liter of water constantly sloshing in my reservoir hadn’t been killing the magic… I grabbed my Walkman and played some music.
Stage Two may not be the worst section on the TDG course but has three major Cols, all three higher than 2500 meters: Col Fenêtre, Col Entrelor, and Col Loson. The first is “only” 2,854 meters high while both Col Entrelor and Col Loson are both above 3,000 meters! Col Loson is the highest pass at 3,299 and its long ascent starts at 1654, packing over 1,500 meters in a single climb: there’s worse but there’s much easier stuff too!
I left the forest and followed the trail across an open plateau; I could see the moonlight glistening off the water of small lake: it was beautiful! I had passed a few runners in the forest but now I was completely alone. I set my headlamp to the lowest level and just kept going: I loved to be out alone in the mountains at night!
By the time I reached Chalet de l’Epée I was feeling tired and told myself I could maybe sleep 20 minutes before attacking Col Fenêtre. I walked inside and the place was packed with people! Ther were at least a dozen sleeping on chairs, resting their heads on tables and possibly some even catching a nap while standing against a column, kind of like horses. It was cold outside and since Valgrisenche was not the best place to sleep, many runners were probably taking a longer break here. All seats seemed to be taken so I just walked to the food counter and filled my cup with coke. I noticed some cold-cut meat that looked like bresaola! I asked what kind of meat it was and the hut owner explained it was a local meat called “Mioncino” or something to that effect: a local version of bresaola! Within a couple of minutes, I had pretty much been through half the tray. I finally spotted a free chair in the table area and made for it. I took off my pack, placed it on the table, tied my poles to it and rest my head on the pack and tried to fall asleep! All of a sudden I felt the cold water being splashed in my face, somebody had toppled a glass of water. A blond woman trying to pass through tables bumped into a chair and spilled hot tea on my left arm: it was pointless to try to sleep there so I decided it was time to move out and get over the first of the three cols. The hardest part of walking into a hut to warm up and eat was probably having to get out again: at night it felt like a cold shower though once on the move again, the discomfort would only last a few minutes, especially if going uphill.
The initial climb to Col Fenêtre was pleasant, even if I had to look where I stepped, I could still enjoy the clear, moonlit night sky. As I closed to the Col, I could feel the air getting thinner and my chest burning, so once over it, I quickly went down straight down till I reached a yellow shelter manned by a sleepy volunteer – these shelters were flown in by helicopter: I grabbed some coke and water but my hands got numb due to the cold very quickly so I headed down.
If the climbs felt very long, the descents were beginning to feel even longer and unfortunately more painful! The terrain was often uneven, with rocks and treacherous holes so I had constantly look down to pay attention where I was stepping. Many sections were also very steep so I had constantly broken the descent
which eventually made set quadriceps on fire and made the knees ache!
The pack was also making my shoulders very sore!
GEAR – The Backpack
Since April 21 I had been using the same pack, an Osprey Duro 15, for all my training runs both short and long. I had carefully chosen it for the TDG because it was extremely comfortable. I easily ran for over a thousand kilometers with that pack and by August it was showing signs of wear tear, especially on the many mesh pockets. I was worried the pockets could break during the Tor causing the important or mandatory gear to fall out of the pack and get lost. In August I had found an Osprey 15 on sale and got it. While I had made sure to break in all the relatively new pair of shoes on the last training runs, I had never gotten around to do the same for the pack! the Tor Des Geant offered plenty of time and terrain to break in all my gear and possibly a lot more…
By the time I arrived at Rhemes-Notre-Dame the sun was already rising. I walked into the checkpoint, a small square building resembling a modern small-town bus station. I heard somebody mentioning beds so I asked right away if I could sleep and was told I’d have to wait 20 minutes — that gave me enough time to have a 2,000-calorie snack. I went the room where the food was happy to find some mioncino and crackers; I wanted to stay off the crostata con Nutella whenever I had the chance to make sure I wouldn’t get nausea by eating the same type of food all the time! Patient Zero and The Black Glove
While I was going through what must have been half a kilo of cold-cut beef, I noticed the runner next to me was grabbing cheese in another tray while still wearing gloves. Not only he hadn’t bothered to take off his dirty gloves but was also drying his drooling nose with the same hand, then going back for some more cheese. I was just waiting for the guy to scratch his itchy butt crack with the same glove and then go for some more cheese when I heard somebody calling my name: it was time to get some real sleep at last! I was shown to a long room with a dozen cots and nearly as many runners who were sleeping deeply. Unlike Valgrisenche there was a separate dormitory room and it was dark, quiet and cool. I headed for the last cot at the far end of the room, took off the pack, shoes, then folded my poles into their carrying sleeve and tied it to bungy cord of my softshell pants. then I lied down and within a few seconds I was finally sleeping. I had only been on the go some 22 hours!
THE SLEEPING STRATEGY
My original plan was to keep going without sleeping as much as could, hoping to last up to 70 hours. If I got that far without a nap, I would then try to sleep without going further: while researching sleep deprivation earlier in the year I had read that going without sleep for over 70 hours can be dangerous. Since 2015 I had been sleeping so poorly that I never expected sleep deprivation to become a debilitating problem, not even after sleeping only a few hours before the Tor. _______________________________________________________________________________________________
I yelled at somebody to leave me alone – in English – not really in so many words. Then I suddenly realized where I was and thanked the volontor for remembering to wake me up; I put on the shoes, grabbed the gear, and headed back to the refreshment room where I refilled my soft flasks and – making sure not to have any cheese – grabbed one last handful of Mioncino and headed out the door!
The weather was great, warm and sunny and the scenery lush. The trail headed up the mountain through another pine forest. I felt good again and went up at a good pace. When I reached the plateau, I caught up with a guy and we started talking. He was from Spain, aside from watching a couple of movies, I hadn’t used my Spanish in years but he didn’t seem to have a problem understanding me or maybe he was a good actor. I really had to focus to follow him though as he was speaking fairly fast or at least I perceived it that way. He had already attempted the TDG and the x4K once before and completed them both. The 4K? It was a mirror race of the TDG: somebody one day woke up and decided to organize the second race on the same course as the TDG but going in the opposite direction. Just like if somebody one day decided to organize a 170 km race exactly on the same course as the UTMB but in the opposite direction and a few days earlier… It goes without saying that it created a serious rivalry and even led to a legal battle until an administrative tribunal sentenced that the TDG would be the only race! My opinion? It’s in the past but for sure the TDG was the first event to be organized so if there was to be only one race, it was only fair that the TDG would be the one!
Anyway, the Spanish dude had an impressive memory and remembered many useful details: he told me what terrain to expect ahead and over the next two cols, the stretches where it was possible to speed up, described features, huts, life bases etc. The Tor is not just about mountains, distances, and cumulative climb! The people in the Tor, the runners, the volontor, as much much as the inhabitants of the Val d’Aosta are the biggest part of the Tor des Geants: they were my Tor des Geants!
I had read 5 books and at least three times as many race reports, I had learned the course altimetry and committed to memory all cols, life bases and major check/refreshment points. I had started rehearsing them as early as February at least once a week. At any point early in the race, you could have asked me how far Cogne was or how many cols were between where I was and the next Life Base; or maybe asked me to name the intermediate checkpoints and huts on the way: I would have probably been able to list them all in consecutive order, complete with approximate altitude and distance on the course. Despite all this, I had miserably failed to figure out the critical information this guy and other people on the course would later share. In all likelihood, without the intel acquired on the trails, I would have probably missed one of the cutoff times ahead.
I stopped to get some water in a stream, dropped some chlorine dioxide in my flasks for extra safety, and resumed my climb. Further up I saw something in the distance next o a rock: it was a woman. When I got closer I realized she was sitting on the rock, holding her head, and looking in really poor shape – she had clearly been throwing her guts up for some time! I asked how she was doing and she told me she was fine. OK, mine was a stupid question and her reply an outright lie. I asked her if she had heart problems, sounding like a mad pharmacist in mountain running instead of a white coat! The question about heart problems was another village idiot’s stunt of mine: if she did, she’d probably have been dead by the second Col… Anyway, I gave her a Motilium Fast Melt and told her it might help with nausea and maybe vomiting too, then wished her good luck. She was somewhat surprised and so was I: I would have thought nausea and anti-vomiting pills were part of the basic kit at any ultra event, and way more so at a 330-Km long event in the Alps. I clearly had no clue and I very few people ever carry along remedies for problems they have never had!
The climb up actually felt easier than the previous ones except for maybe the last two hundred vertical meters. The descent wasn’t hard either even if seeing all the people I had passed during the climb and more, passing me again at speed didn’t exactly boost my self-confidence. All I could really do was accept it, much more so since this script would repeat itself after climbing each and every col…
I finally reached the valley and hit a tarmac road, followed the signs and got to the Eaux Rousses checkpoint which consisted in a white long, rectangular tent! I was hungry but it was clear the refreshment here would not be as good as in a life base. It was very small and there had been at least over 600 people through it already so the best food was already gone. There was some pasta but it looked badly overcooked and there was no tomato sauce; there was no mioncino either which killed all sense of guilt for overdosing at the previous checkpoints. There was some cheese but after experiencing Patient Zero with the Black Glove, I wasn’t really sure I was ready to eat some.
I wondered if he had been choppered off the mountain due to some infection or if maybe the Italian army had sent an NBRC unit with flamethrowers to crisp him and ensure a pandemic wouldn’t spread, or else the Tor Des Geants could have turned into the Tor Des Infectés! We’ll probably never know… After this mouth-watering mental digression, I wasn’t really hungry and, for a change, I had some crostata again. In the checkpoint, there were at least two runners who had decided to quit and were trying to arrange to be picked up or to get a lift to Cogne. I could also hear reports of more dropouts coming through the radio. I have to be honest: if I hadn’t been so close to dropping out after the first section, I would have probably thought most of them a bunch of confused and unprepared people – injuries aside of course! Why come to the TDG and quit so early? Instead, having experienced how fast self-defeating doubts crept into my head and having been close to dropping out myself, it would have been unfair – if not outright hypocrite – to judge others for such a decision! After all, they deserved respect even only for showing up and giving it a try.
Before leaving I asked one of the volunteer about the climb to Col Loson. She replied it was a long climb but really easy and that she did despite not being a real hiker… That didn’t reassure me much considering she was her early twenties and looked fit like an Olympic medalist. In that corner of the Italian woods – read northern Alpine regions – many locals hike or ski in the mountains as often as people get stuck in traffic in big cities. Not to mention she didn’t probably have 80 Km on her legs and another 260 to go when she had hiked to Cogne…
As I called out my number on the way out I realized the Australian woman who I had given the Motilium Fast Melt earlier not only had caught up but had also gone straight through. I was impressed to see how determined she was despite feeling so sick: not that I was in any way a reference for a fast pace but she had gotten past me and other people despite her trouble. I thought I was lucky to feel good and have an iron stomach!
I walked up the hill through the usual pine forest covering the lower slopes of the next climb. It was an arm and my feet were steaming in the Ultra Raptor GTX. Further up the trail, I ran into some local hikers who were coming down from the col: when they realized I had a TDG big they started calling me by name and cheering: it was surprising how supportive and friendly the Val d’Aosta people were! I asked them how long it would take to the col and they warned me it would be at least two hours but said it was an easy climb, with the exception of the last 300 vertical meters which were more technical. It confirmed what the volontor had said not long before at the checkpoint. Eighty kilometers into the race, I had gotten into the habit of cross-checking everything, even the name on my passport: nothing during the Tor could be taken as accurate unless confirmed by multiple people, especially if it was about space or time. These people clearly knew what they were talking about and trusted them!
There was still light but took a short break to get ready for running in the dark. I took out out my headlamp and adjusted it over the buff on my head. I also slid the flashlight back in the right pocket of my softshell pants. It was still relatively warm and decided to keep on my lightest windshell: dressing lighter made me feel slightly cold if I slowed down but kept me from overheating when going at a faster pace, especially uphill.
I trudged up the mountain and when I got about 300 meters from the top, a cold wind started picking up. I decided to keep going thinking I would change into warmer layers further up. However, the more I climbed, the stronger the wind became, and the colder I felt. Besides, there was no really sheltered place: the wind had become bone-chilling and realized I’d try to stop, I’d go hypothermic even before getting the extra layer out of my pack. The col looked close so I pushed really hard and passed several other runners; I finally reached the top only to realize there were at least still another 300 vertical meters to the actual col. The altitude data on my Garmin Foretrex confirmed it beyond doubt: the real col had to be further up and hadn’t been visible from further below.
By the time I stepped on the col, my lungs were screaming for oxygen and I was still shivering. I cast a quick look backward and saw a long line of flickering lights all the way down to the valley below. For a second, I felt proud for having climbed so fast, then got back to the freezing reality, and I jumped down the other side. I descended just long enough to be sheltered from the wind, took off my pack, slid into my ultralight insulation jacket, and changed into the heavier Windstopper gloves, then resumed the descent in an attempt to warm up.
To the left there was a rock wall and a steel rope nailed to it. I thought it was a really nice decorative effort but somewhat an overkill considering the trail was neither too steep nor uneven. Then I looked to the right and saw a huge dark hole…I set my Fenix HL55 to 800 lumens but all I could see was a bottomless drop! What the fuck had I gotten myself into? My fear of heights went back a long way and as far as I remember I’ve always had it but its intensity varied and got better or worse at different times in my life. On Col Loson, it got much fucking worse: I practically froze and stood there holding the rope unable to move further. It must have not been long since nobody went past me but in my mind felt like an eternity. Then it just clicked… First, the ledge is at least three-meter wide! Second, get your shit together! This isn’t about yourself or your stupid fears! Not even your limits! It’s about proving you can overcome them! You came here because you wanted to! You came here because you told yourself you could and would do it! What’s the problem now? Stop being an idiot! It’s never going to get easier: You have to dig deep every day, every climb every descent! Stop trying to figure it out! This isn’t a race, it’s a mindset… My self-talk had nearly turned into a split-personality mental condition but as long as it kept me going, I didn’t mind. I could have always asked for a straitjacket once back in Courmayeur and if I decided to go for 338 Km hike, no doubt I wasn’t that sane, to begin with…
I passed the exposed section and reached the yellow shelter; a volontor, a woman, was outside, wearing a thick dawn insulation jacket, and trying to keep warm by walking in circles. Three other people were sitting inside the shelter. I asked her if I could sit inside for 5 minutes and she told me the shelter was just for the people staffing the checkpoint – alpine guides or volunteers. It made sense. I wasn’t allowed in but I could, of course, ask for an exception if I was in a very poor state. I decided to just grab a hot tea to help bring the shivering under control and then went down again.
The descent from Col Entrelor was easy, at least two dozen people passed me – I had lost dexterity in my hands and wasn’t able to warm them up till I was close to Rifugio Sella. There were only a few people in the Rifugio and not much food left to choose from. There was a Korean woman sleeping in the main hall, lying on the window ledge. The people in the hut speaking in a local dialect: I could barely understand but I assumed debating whether to wake up the woman and offer her to go to ones of the rooms to sleep or let her rest the way she had chosen to. I took a ten-minute break and snacked on some food, then went out in the freezing cold and began going down toward Cogne. Not long after leaving the rifugio, one of the volunteers passed me and he was just walking, not even trying to jog: it made me realize how slow I was on the downhill. About an hour later, I thought I had finally reached the town; instead, I found out it was a small village outside Cogne. Three-quarters of an hour later, I was still walking hoping Cogne would be beyond the next turn, then I saw a volontor standing on the side of the road and asked for directions: 10 minutes later I was finally in the life base! I yelled out my number and a few seconds later I was handed my yellow bag. I was truly impressed by their efficiency. Instead of heading for the changing room, this time I went to the huge tent where food was being served. I ordered a dish of penne al pomodoro, then a second one, then had a croissant filled it with a few hundred grams of Nutella!
The changing and sleeping room were in an adjacent brick building. It looked like a sports center and probably was one. The changing room wasn’t very big but there were several showers: I didn’t think twice about it and jumped into one. I changed into clean socks, spread anti-chafing cream and began the miserable process of pushing all the clothes and gear back into the drop bag: I had to get somebody to help me hold the bag while pulling the zipper but eventually managed faster than in Valgrisenche.
On the way out the dining hall was empty and they were dismantling the kitchen; I showed my number started jogging out of town. It was four o’clock in the morning and Cogne was deserted except for a couple of half-asleep volunteers who were standing at an intersection: the poor fuckers must have been freezing themselves to death to make sure we’d be going in the right direction. You can only love the volontor for what they do!
After some good food and a shower, I felt so good, both physically and mentally, it was hard to believe how close I had been to dropping out just 24 hours earlier! I realized I had done it all by myself: I had dug a dark hole and mentally jumped into it! I knew running in the Alps for the first time would be hard: expecting something to be hard didn’t make it necessarily any easier. Dealing with the endless long steep climbs, the lack of altitude adaptation, as well as the sleep deprivation the days before had taken a toll. Instead of focusing on making it to the next checkpoint, the next climb, the next turn, …or even just the next step, I had begun questioning my ability to complete the remaining 300 Km! What was I thinking? The “virus” had briefly taken control of my mind and I had nearly surrendered to the negative thoughts and the self-defeating feeling of hopelessness. Luckily, the support, the encouragement of countless people, and the self-talk had worked and held out against the Alpine Shock.
While jogged past a group of old buildings, I whispered to myself that the Tor Des Geants would never be again about how far away I still was, that it would never get easier, and that it would be down to the last the step, the last breath, the last heartbeat!
Coming soon: Easy Ride Cogne to Donnas: 45 km 2698 D+