Easy Ride: Cogne to Donnas – 45 km / 2698+

Cogne to Donnas is considered an easy stage, probably the easiest of the whole course: it is 45 Km long and has only one major climb to Fenêtre de Champorcher at 2,827 meters. From then on is mostly an endless and gradual descent into Donnas, the town where the third life base is located. Forty-five kilometers and nearly 3,000 meters climb may not be easy but compared to other sections in the Tor, it’s like a walk in the park and a much needed mental break before the hell section to Gressoney!

The Espresso and the Hunchback
On the way out of Cogne, I found myself walking next to a runner who had a strange posture: he was walking completely hunched over his poles. I first figured he might have been using one of those high-tech new curved poles I had noticed while on the way to La Thuile. I had always been a big fan of hiking poles and was curious to hear about this new design and its supposed benefits. I wanted to ask a few questions but when I got a closer look, I realized they were just a pair of regular Black Diamond  Z Carbon poles. They were not even adjustable like my Leki: I wondered why this guy was using such short poles considering he was at least 1.80-meter tall. Had he maybe just wanted to use the poles for steep ascents and without using them on the downhills? That might have explained his unusual choice but it would have still been a somewhat outlandish strategy…

All of a sudden I saw the “Espresso Point” a hundred meters ahead. I had first seen it in one of the many action cam videos from previous Tor editions, I had been obsessively watching on Youtube. My first and only 100-miler had been an eye-opener and found myself unexpectedly battling sleep monsters and nearly falling asleep on the trail. For the Tor, I had done some research and brought with so many caffeine pills, I was worried I’d be arrested for trafficking! The Tor Des Geants being entirely in Italy though, I had imagined myself to be drinking velvety espresso shots all over both Alta Via, to the point that the caffeine pills had felt like an overkill or maybe a laudable example of flawless planning for the sake of leaving nothing to chance. I soon got another think coming: coffee in nearly all refreshment points so far had been instant coffee. Maybe it was just me but I found that instant coffee so bad that I actually got a headache whenever I got a sip. As much as I hated the TDG organizers for not providing quality coffee at each refreshment point, I could easily understand why: distributing espresso on the TDG course would have been a logistical nightmare, especially considering supplies to many of the high-altitude refreshment points and shelters had mostly to be flown in by helicopter.

The Espresso Point, on the other hand, offered the real thing: coffee that not only keeps you awake but tastes damn good too. While savoring the creamy after-taste, and waiting for the caffeine kick to hit me, I told to the gentleman at the stand that I had seen him on Youtube. I went on to say I really appreciated the fact that he was there, that late at night and in the cold, handing out great coffee when all of a sudden somebody behind me started cursing like a trooper. I turned around and I saw the hunchback walking in circles, screaming, shaking his right arm in the air, then yelling “Cazzo!” half a dozen times! Unsure what to think, I wondered if he had maybe lost either his wallet or his mind. Instead, he went yelling that somebody had taken his Black Diamond poles and replaced them with an identical pair in the wrong, shorter, size. The man at the Espresso Point told him in very friendly terms nobody had come by the stand and left since he had arrived – aside from me who happened to be holding my pair of Lekis. That could only mean one thing: somebody had taken his poles by mistake earlier while in Cogne and he had walked about a kilometer before even realizing his poles were too short! He quickly disappeared while still cursing!

I had a new pair of Leki Micro Vario Carbon. Heavier than other more basic carbon models, especially recent ones aimed at trail runners, they can be adjusted to different heights in a matter of seconds and have extremely comfortable handles. I also had an identical pair of older, beat-up, and less reliable Leki poles in my drop bag. They were my backup in case one or both newer poles would break or get lost. Since April 21 I had been using poles for all training runs, even for the shorter 10 and 15 Km mid-week training sessions. I also had applied high-viz tape to both poles to make sure I would always recognize them as mine or, if dropped at night due to a downhill fall, still be able to locate them using my flashlight. My only rule about the poles was to have them with me at all times, either in my hands or folded and scured to the pack. At all times meant while running, walking, eating, sleeping… bathroom visit? Oh yeah, no exception! In a couple of the huts they asked me to leave them outside but instead, I folded them and attached them to my pack, and then entered the hut. Never leave your poles!

After leaving the expresso point, I followed a trail into a wood and the air suddenly turned very humid and warm: I took off my pack and took off the thermal layer. Managing body temperature efficiently without continually stopping to put on or remove layers was proving to be a real challenge as temperatures seemed to change drastically within very short distances: from very cold to relatively warm and back to really cold very quickly, sometimes even in a matter of a few minutes. A stone path winded through the forest all the way up to the next mountain. By the time I was out of the forest and into the open mountain the sky was getting bright but also much colder. I made a hairpin turn and ran into the guardian angel again. He wasn’t looking too good and told me he had been feeling sick since leaving Valgrisenche. I pulled out my meds bag and fixed him up with a Motilium. I told him I wasn’t sure it would help but that he could try as a last resort assuming he didn’t suffer from a heart condition: I was the official Motilium pusher of the TDG 2017! I resumed my climb and it wasn’t long before it started raining. I was in the Alps but on that stretch, it could have easily been another day in the Irish mountains with drizzle and low cloud over grassy meadows: the scenery was enjoyable and the low dark clouds created a dramatic contrast in colors.

I crossed a trail runner coming from the opposite direction and checked with him if the structure ahead was rifugio Sogno, the next refreshment point on the course. It wasn’t and it would still be at least another 30 minutes to the rifugio so  I decided to throw on the Goretex jacket and a warmer middle layer which I had taken in Cogne.

After half an hour I got to rifugio Sogno which was at the end of the plateau and just below a cirque where the Col Fenêtre must have been. I couldn’t see the Col though as the mountain disappeared into the threatening dark clouds above. I quickly went around the building, found a large double door, and walked in. It was a long rectangular room with tables and seats at the sides as well as an L-shaped counter at the far end where food and drinks were sitting. A few people were sleeping, lying on several chairs or even on the ground. I had eaten like crazy at around 3:00 am and a mere 4 hours later I was already starving again so I got a huge pot of white rice and took a seat at a long table with a few other people. While eating I listened to a funny Italian fella giving a drama queen show about how hard the Tor Des Geants was. He complained that the organizers made it each year harder by making the cutoff times tighter. I had never heard of such a thing before but I had never compared the cutoff times from the different editions either so I had no reason not to believe him. In fact, it didn’t simply matter.  This guy had supposedly attempted the TDG once or twice before though it was unclear if he had ever completed it. Not that it made any difference: even if he had DNFed twice before, he’d have all my respect for coming back to attempt it again a third time; probably way more so than if he had crossed the finish line both times before. He went on with his funny drama performance complaining how stage 4 could easily take a full 24 hours. I suddenly stopped eating, stared at him, and then asked if he was really sure about that. He replied bluntly that, elite athletes aside, most people didn’t complete stage 4 in less than 24 hours, assuming they would complete it at all. At best, the average runner could hope to do it in about 22 hours. I knew stage 4 was supposedly the most difficult section: all the books, race reports, podcasts described it as a torturing sequence of mind-wrecking up and downs but I didn’t remember having read anywhere about taking so much longer than the other stages! Could I have overlooked such important information about the section ahead? Yes, I could but I wondered where Mr. Drama had pulled his statistics out of. Rumors? Most of the people at the table left and decided to grab more crostata. When I went back to my seat I found the Spanish guardian angel sitting on the chair next to mine. Apparently, the Motilium had helped some and he was feeling better, ready to eat some. I quickly asked him about stage 4 and if it was true that it could take as long as 24 hours: he paused briefly thinking about the question and confirmed that it could take easily between 20 and 24 hours to complete. My heart suddenly sank: if it was true, if it could take that long, it would be really difficult for me to make it to Gressoney in time! And even if I did, I’d lose the little margin I had left over the subsequent cutoff times. He went on to confirm that the vast majority of dropouts happened during stage 4 and that making it to Gressoney on time, if it didn’t mean completing the Tor, certainly amounted to having much better odds to eventually crossing the finish line. I had lost my appetite so I just drank a few glasses of coke and told him I’d see him later!

I walked out the door of rifugio Sogno and practically sprinted up the mountain as if I had rabid donkey behind trying to bite a chunk of flesh off my butt. As I climbed faster and faster, I kept doing the math on the hours still needed to get to Donnas in a desperate attempt to figure out my odds. I finally approached the Col Fenêtre and the clouds cleared. There was snow but it wasn’t too deep or icy: there was no need to wear the crampons.

Col Fenetre

I barely stopped at the shelter below the col to refill one water bottle and have some coke, then cautiously headed down as knee pain had been getting worse during each descent. While going down, I had to step aside a few times to let quite a few runners go past and keep their faster pace. Half an hour or so later I saw somebody out of the corner of my eye waving at me in the distance: I had almost accidentally missed a checkpoint which could have resulted in being disqualified or at the very least penalized. Fortunately, one of the volunteers was out having a smoke, saw me and made sure to catch my attention. I stopped to drink some coke, eat some crostata and find out how long it would take to reach Donnas: I knew the distance in Km and that it was downhill all the way but kilometers and meant nothing at the Tor and I wasn’t too sure what to expect in terms of terrain. I  was told I still had between 4 to 5 hours to go and then just left.

Col Fenetre 2

An hour later I realized there were no more yellow flags on the trail – I had missed a turn somewhere so I had to backtrack up the hill. Luckily it wasn’t too far away but I had lost a good 20-30 minutes. The sun had also come out and it became really warm so I had to stop again to remove two layers and resume the descent in my light t-shirt. More runners caught up and passed me. The trail weaved down a grassy alpine meadow where a few cows were grazing, then it turned into a series of hard-packed, rocky switchbacks which forced me to slow me down even more as my knees were killing me already. A few more runners approached and passed me till I eventually found myself completely on my own. I eventually made it to a paved road; I had never been a fan of road running, it’s just a matter of personal taste and as far as mine went, I had always found it boring and predictable. Now it was different, the few short sections on paved roads actually meant a much-needed break from the rugged and uneven terrain and a short rest for the agonizing lower joints.! I entered the town Champorchier and headed again off course, this time along a river. Luckily two other runners, a couple attempting the Tor together, saw me from the road above and started shouting and waving till they got my attention.

About an hour later I closed in a small village and passed some runners who seemed to be struggling because of the heat. An older gentleman standing in the street, clearly a local, stopped me and started asking questions: he was really curious about the Tor but noticed I was in a hurry so he told me to keep going, jumped into a van, and drove next to me for a few hundred meters while he kept asking a few more questions. I explained I was going to the Donnas through the high route; he told me he had walked the trail once or twice and shared a brief description saying I would cross some ”moving bridges”. He joked by offering me a ride and replied he could hike it to Courmayeur with me if he wanted: we both laughed and then he wished me good luck before driving off.

Rumsfield Burbs

As I was jogging down I started chatting with another runner who really looked like Mark Rumsfield from the Burbs. He was from Italy and had done the Tor a two or three times before. He went on to talk about the history of the Tor, the course, and of course section ahead. I sort of enjoyed the conversation, he was really nice and had a lot of interesting details to share… at least up to when he began saying that making it to Gressoney in time was becoming more and more unlikely. He kept talking about “we” so I assumed he must have been attempting the Tor together with a friend. After a few “we can’t”, “we won’t”, “we will never”, “we’ll fail”  “we’ll die”… I got suspicious and decided to ask him where the fuck his pal was. It turned out there was no pal and that “we” was actually “us”: me and him! I wasn’t exactly sure when we had become an item – a binome as they say in French – nor what might have encouraged him to think of us as the Starsky and Hutch of the Val d’Aosta trails. Maybe he was just trying to be humble and inclusive out of some twisted desire to be politically correct. What I was dead sure of though, was that I didn’t want to be infected by his negativity, much less let a stranger with a perm tell me what I would or wouldn’t be able to do: I said I’d see him in Gressoney if he made it that far, then sprinted down and left him behind.

I had just begun crossing a bridge when it suddenly started moving under my feet: I jolted and then remembered what the man in the van had told me. If he hadn’t mentioned it, I would have probably jumped into the river. Past the bridge, I reached the village of Pontboset which was perched on a mountain slope, then went down and crossed a charming, old stone bridge. I saw a group of locals chatting in the warm glow of the afternoon and asked them how long it would take to get o Donnas. It wasn’t too far away but they broke the bad news: there was one last climb on the way! I wasn’t happy but thought “If I have already climbed over 12,000 meters and slept only 90 minutes in the past 50 hours, I can do one more climb!” I truly hated the idea of an unexpected climb though!

I followed a stony path into a chestnut forest up and along the mountainside. For some inexplicable reason, the place reminded Parc Güell in Barcelona. There were no art nouveau structures, in fact, there were nearly no structures at all and definitely not designed by Gaudi. Maybe it was the way rock and vegetation mixed together or perhaps the color of the rock or maybe very early symptoms fatigue and sleep deprivation. I completed the climb and began the descent down, and soon reached Donnas or at least what I thought to be Donnas… Instead, I found out the Life Base would be further out: a script that would keep repeating itself in a sort of torturing Groundhog Day loop. I crossed the village and while walking along a cobblestoned, narrow street lined by old buildings a gray-haired, well-dressed man stopped me to ask how long I had been going and how far I would have to go. When I gave him the rough figures he turned around toward a young woman sitting on a wall and told her “You see, I told you these people are crazy and can go such a distance!”. Then the man turned toward me and shook my hand. Unsure whether he had paid a compliment or just diagnosed me as mentally insane, I simply replied that so far it didn’t feel that hard and then walked away.

I just wanted to get to the Life Base but instead and the arrows pointed out of town again: it felt never-ending and I couldn’t take it anymore when in the distance  I finally spotted the old Roman arch dug into the rock and the consular road which I had seen in several TDG videos: it meant I was nearly there at last! Just before the arch, there was a photographer who told me to go left at the next light and you bet I went… right. Luckily another volunteer ran after me and then jogged with me to the Life Base. When I walked in I felt a wave of bad vibes hitting me. I couldn’t tell exactly what but there was definitely something weird about the place. I was told my GPS tracker wasn’t working and that I need to get it fixed. The guy who was supposed to take care of it reacted as if I had walked into his wedding while he was exchanging rings but supposedly fixed the GPS.

I got my yellow drop bag and looked for the changing room but there wasn’t any so I just took my clothes off while standing in the narrow corridor between the main hall and a flight of stairs supposedly leading up the dormitory. Ultra perm walked in but didn’t say hi and neither did I. I didn’t need another dose of his self-defeating can’t-do attitude! Two female volunteers were talking and one of them mentioned the previous night she had had a huge fight with her boyfriend for cracking the glass of his living room table. She then went on to add that if he would break up with her, her personal trainer had told her all she needed was to lose a few more kilos and she’d have a line of men knocking at her door. I told myself I had already lost a few kilos by now but that to have women queueing at my door I’d need plastic surgery, to say the least, and probably a wizard to cast a magic spell on the unfortunate women too. The showers were just behind the door to my left: it was basically a square room tiled all around with shower heads protruding from three out of the four walls. It reminded me of those penitentiaries you see in Hollywood movies where inmates get shanked while picking up the soap. Inside, instead of evil-looking, tattooed,  convicts there were only two naked runners. Probably due to a sleep-deprivation-induced state of paranoia, I did make sure not to drop my soap on the ground!

Getting changed felt like a contortionist act: I used the only chair  I could grab to place my drop bag and ensure it would stay dry. While standing, and using one hand to make sure nothing would fall out of the bag onto the muddy floor, I slid back into the sweaty softshell pants, a pair of clean Injinji Run socks, and then replaced the Akasha for the Ultra Raptor GTX. I spent a good five minutes trying to zip the bag closed, then headed back to the main hall for food.

I got some pasta and a dessert. The pasta was overcooked, nearly melted into a pulp but at this stage, I didn’t really care. I overheard the group of people next to me saying it was maybe pointless to even try getting to Gressoney because this stage was incredibly hard and there wasn’t much time left. Even assuming it was true, I did not want to listen to the infecting whine so I moved with my food and my bag a few tables down to the to the left, near the entrance.

I was about to finish the pasta when the person sitting across from me, a man in his early 40s, called somebody over his cell phone and announced he would drop out of the TDG because he couldn’t go on anymore. I was tempted to move again but told myself there was no point. The man went on to explain he was completely exhausted and that the stage ahead was the hardest of all so he stood chance. Then tears began streaming down his red face. I could relate the sense of frustration and really felt sorry for the poor bastard: you dream about it a long time, register, manage to win the lottery, maybe after a few unlucky tries, then train like crazy for nearly a year, and when you are finally there, it all goes up in smoke in a matter of seconds. Before you know it you are on your way back home, feeling like a failure! I wondered if maybe this man hadn’t dreamed about the Tor Des Geants, he had made the unforgiving mistake of picking it as if it had been another  “race”. Or maybe he hadn’t wanted to get to Courmayeur as badly as he should have. Whatever the truth, I thought of telling him to go out and never quit before giving the very last of what he could still give. I wanted to tell him to not decide giving up while sitting in on a chair but only on the trail, when mentally or physically unable to make another step. He was clearly lost in his own sad moment and he was the only one who could tell why he had decided to end his journey then and there. If he had made up his mind, if the virus had gotten him, then there was no saving him because the only cure for the virus was inside his brain: if his thoughts could no longer ignite that fire in the gut, that unyielding desire and if he could no longer trigger a release of endogenous opioid neuropeptides, then he was simply fucked!

I realized I really had to get going: I grabbed a bottle of Coke from a nearby table and drank half a dozen glasses while meticulously going through my pack and gear twice to make sure I had everything I needed. Since I was going to be out longer, possibly for as many as 24 hours, I had decided I bring an extra mid-layer for the colder night hours, even if that meant carrying along additional weight. I dropped the yellow bag, gave my number to the volontor standing at the door, and began walking out of Donnas.

Photo by Cameranews – http://shop.cameranews.it

It was around 7:30 PM which meant I had over 27 hours to get to Gressoney. By all accounts I had the time I needed, provided I would make no mistakes, there would be no unexpected delays, I wouldn’t twist an ankle, a bird wouldn’t shit on my forehead and cause me to fall off a col… quite a few ifs and buts to feel overconfident or even comfortable about the challenge ahead. Besides, if I wanted to keep some margin on the subsequent cutoff times, I really had to try hard to reach Gressoney in even fewer hours. During the seven months spent planning and training for the Tor, I had miserably failed to anticipate the difficulty of this leg but there was nothing I could do about it now and getting mad at myself for that mistake wasn’t obviously going to help.

The sun was setting and the air was warm, if it hadn’t been for the grueling task ahead, it could have been the perfect late summer evening to chill out. I decided to listen to some music when I got alarmed by sudden, loud screams. I turned around unsure what to think; I was afraid somebody had been injured, maybe hit by a car when out of my peripheral vision I noticed some people on a balcony waving: it wasn’t screams of pain but screams of encouragement! These people were cheering me on as I walked by: “Bravo!”, “Vai!”, “Grande!”! I waved back at them and then began walking again, my heart still beating fast from the scare.

I saw the TDG signs pointing off the paved road and into a forest and had to step aside to let two other runners go past. I paused and began taking in slow and deep breaths in an attempt to get focused. I remembered of all the people who had said surviving this stage was unlikely, that most runners would drop out between Donnas and Gressoney. All the negativity had actually driven my motivation to an entirely new level. In my sleep-deprived and delusional mind, it felt as if I was about to make a last heroic stand against the overwhelming dark forces of the Virus. They had been ruthlessly killing off the dreams of countless runners all around and now I was about to avenge them all by kicking the Virus’ ass in a seemingly hopeless final epic fight! Sadly, I had no white horse to jump on and lead into battle: I’d have to foot it all the way! I told myself the Stage 4 wasn’t going to be simple, it wasn’t going to be easy but if it had been done before by others, then I could sure do it too. And if it was for the Tor, I could do it, I had to do it, and I would love doing it. Of course, I still had a choice, we always do: I could, figuratively, die trying!


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