That one Last Magic Shot: Valltournenche to Ollomont – 48 km 4904 D+
The sky had cleared up and it had gradually become warmer. I followed a road uphill through the village, then out into the fields until I saw a TDG sign pointing into a wood.
This section has three major cols: Fenêtre du Tsan, Col Vessonaz – both over 2,700 meters high – and Col Brison just short of 2,500 meters. I did remember from books and race reports that Stage 6 wasn’t easy, and the data confirmed it: 48 Km and almost 5,000 meters of total ascent, roughly 250 Km into the journey. Even worse, the altimetry profile was worryingly reminiscent of Stage 4, with an incessant sequence of climbs and descents. The initial climb was quite steep but only 400 vertical meters, leading to a plateau with a reservoir and a dam. There was both low visibility and very strong winds, creating an eerie atmosphere. It may have been due to a tunnel effect caused by the dam but I was neither an engineer nor a weatherman, and to be completely honest, I couldn’t have cared less to know why…
Rifugio Barmasse was in the middle of the plateau, not too far away from the reservoir. When I climbed the steps to the patio, I found a runner banging his fist on the door which apparently was locked. Somebody finally came to open it and let us in. The interiors looked unassuming and pretty dated too; the hut probably had been built in the seventies or even sixties. There was a long, narrow corridor with doors on both sides: I heard voices coming from a doorway further down to the right and started heading there but the man who had opened the door impatiently told us to get into the first room to the left. A couple of runners were there along with two volunteers. I could sense negative vibes but I thought it was just in my head, just sleep-deprivation-induced paranoia. Then I heard a French runner asking if he could sleep there but he couldn’t get a straight answer. The man who had opened our door and one of the volunteers just kept asking him if he really wanted to sleep. Maybe they thought he had just asked to kill time, hang around, or as an excuse to chat them up! Eventually, he gave up and left. I got a cup of instant coffee but couldn’t stand the taste so I downed a few cups of coke instead; then decided to go back out again straight away. The howling wind was intimidating but I felt more comfortable outside than in that cramped room inside the hut. I was on the patio zipping up my heavier windshell when the other runner also came out – he furtively turned around as if to make sure nobody was behind him, then said: “It was weird inside, those people were staring at me!” After all, I wasn’t imagining things, at least not this time!
I jogged across the plateau and slowly went down a slope, then turned onto a dirt road: the wind had suddenly stopped and the view cleared to a beautiful sunset over a lush valley. For once I decided to catch my breath while enjoying the view, even took a photo with my phone, then started going down again.
Less than half an hour later I reached a farm, the TDG flags led straight to the the main door and wondered if maybe it was just a voluntary refreshment point: it wasn’t unusual for people living close to the TDG course to support participants by offering food and drinks at their own expense. The door was open so I walked inside but could not see other runners; in fact, I couldn’t see anybody at all! All of a sudden a man arrived so I asked if it was a Tor Des Geants checkpoint but he replied in a language I couldn’t understand. It wasn’t a local dialect, it sounded more like an eastern European language. I tried to talk very slowly in English but he raised his hand as if telling me to wait and left: when he came back he had a bunch of TDG yellow flags in his hand. I followed him outside, he pointed toward a line of pine trees, and then started planting the flags into the ground. As I walked past the farm, I noticed a few runners coming up from a slope to the south; I figured they must have gotten lost because the flags were missing and were now backtracking to the trail – I waved at them to follow me.
We climbed for some time as darkness fell, then hit a trail contouring the mountain. We kept going for almost an hour when we came across a small lit-up house where a Land Rover was parked outside: this had to be Vareton, an actual checkpoint. I got some crostata and a few glasses of coke and then asked the volunteers if I could crash there on the floor for half an hour. They replied there was actually a room with two beds: one was free and I could use it. I followed a volontor inside and into room with two beds: the one closer to the door was taken while the bed beyond it, along the far wall, was empty. I asked the volontor if she could wake me up 45 minutes later. The small room had old furniture and it could have like one those haunted rooms in ghost story flicks. Add to that I could hear whoever, or whatever, was lying under an old-fashioned knitted blanket on the other bed talking in its sleep with a deep, hoarse voice: for a moment I wondered if I should run outside and ask to fill my soft cup with some holy water just in case but was too simply too tired. I took off my shoes, tied the poles, and put backpack on the bed, then lied resting my head on it and virtually passed out. I was woken up by a loud voice, I tried to focus and I could hear volontor say we both had to go: I checked my watch and I realized had been sleeping for an hour and half. They either had forgotten to wake me up or – more likely – they had to give it a few tries before succeeding. The possessed guy was already getting dressed and laughing on his own. I quickly put on my shoes, grabbed the pack, and walked out with him. We had a good talk for a short while, then I just went up the next uphill really fast and found myself alone with no light in sight ahead or behind.
It was really cold but the sky had cleared and it was a beautiful night; despite feeling exhausted, I was happy to be alone in the mountains: these were the moments I had come to the Tor for! I crossed a bog and caught up with a runner from Italy. We began chatting and of course I had to explain why I had an Ireland bib: people didn’t seem to know you run for the country you reside in and not necessarily the one you have a passport from. A couple of people even asked if I had lied about my nationality just to easily win an entry to the Tor which just showed they had no clue how popular the Tor Des Geants had become! By now, I knew what to say: “I have been away from Italy for nearly 20 years” and that seemed to do the trick without further questions or explanations about why or where. All of sudden we realized there was somebody running fast in our direction: he had a TDG bib: who else would be running there that late at night anyway? We stopped him to find out whether something was wrong, assuming that if he is running in the wrong direction something had to be wrong. When I saw his face from up close, I realized he was the guy I had talked to when leaving Rifugio Barmasse. He just mumbled “No yellow flags!” and was about to leave when the Italian guy grabbed his arm and uttered “Wait, where are you going?” The runner just yanked his arm free and darted off.
“Did you see his eyes? His pupils were huge!” the Italian guy said. “He looked really weird.” he added. He was right: the runner who had turned back looked as if he was high on something. Obviously this had nothing to do with drugs: this far into the Tor looking weird was pretty much the norm. I had a hunch I wasn’t exactly looking like somebody on his way to a beauty contest either.
In the distance we saw the wide-eyed runner crossing two other people behind us and they also seemed to stop him: they talked briefly and then they all turn around and went off in the wrong direction. It was true, I hadn’t seen flags for a short while, maybe a few hundred meters but there was no other direction to go. The Tor was really well marked or else it would have turned into a huge search and rescue operation with lost ultraunners roaming the wilderness of Val d’Aosta Alps in a demented state for weeks. Yet it didn’t necessarily mean that there had to be a flag every 50 meters all the way. This guy was about to trigger a mass hysteria and soon there could be dozens of people heading in the wrong direction. We just shrugged our shoulders and kept going when, less than a minute later, we stopped in our tracks, looked at one another, and simultaneously said “What if he’s right?” The paranoia was clearly contagious: we agreed I’d go ahead, he’d go backward and the first one who found the way would let the other one know. I went ahead for not even 30 seconds and found a discolored Alta Via #1 marking on a rock – I blew my whistle a few times and we started hiking in the right direction again.
Before long we reached Rifugio Magia. I walked in and gave my number to two volunteers sitting at the reception desk facing the main door. The rifugio inside looked great: it must have been either fully refurbished or even built very recently. To the right there was a room with low lights and a table with the usual food while to the left there was a dark dining room which appeared to have been turned into a makeshift dormitory for the night. I nibbled some food while standing and then went to the dining room trying to find a socket and set my my phone to charge. My 2600 mAh power bank in the pack still had half a charge but wanted to keep it as a last resort in case of an emergency. There were several runners sleeping on the floor, lying between the tables and chairs, a few of them moaning in their sleep. Sleeping on the bench along the right wall I spotted a familiar face… it was the dude who had laughed at me at Colle della Vecchia, when I was ridiculously walking away from the drop. For a moment I thought of electroshocking him in his sleep with my phone charging adaptor but didn’t want to wake the other people up. I plugged in the phone and just lied on the bench on the far wall using my pack as pillow.
Shortly after I opened my eyes and realized I had fallen asleep for a few minutes. I sat up on the bench waiting for my eyes to adjust to the dark room. In the meanwhile three runners had walked in and I could hear them asking a volunteer if they could sleep. The guy a the reception, who happened to have a Rome accent, replied that of course they could but if that would have almost certainly caused them to miss the next cutoff point. That information slowly sank in and I instantly got a bad feeling! I looked around the dark room only to realize most runners were gone. There were only maybe two or three moaners left on the floor. Mr Smiley had also vacated the premises. I quickly lit up the display of my GPS watch and squinted my eyes to focus and read the time… “Fuuuuuuuck!!!!” I uttered under my breath. “Fuck” I said loudly! I quickly grabbed my phone, poles, threw the pack on my shoulders, and scrambled to the reception to ask one of the volunteers how long it would take to get to Oyace, the next checkpoint on the route. The man was French and must have volunteered while supporting somebody who was attempting the Tor; he replied he didn’t know but the previous day he had climbed to Rifugio Cuney, the next refreshment point, and it had taken him between 2 and 3 hours. That was real bad news! I turned around and said thanks while slamming the door closed behind myself.
The change of temperature was significant, it was freezing but I was so worried I didn’t even care. I began climbing again, still cursing loudly in the cold, clear alpine night. I couldn’t believe I might have just blown my last chance at making it to Courmayeur in time because I had… overslept!!! How had I managed to fuck that one up so badly! I felt like banging my head against the first solid rock I could find but being frustrated with myself wasn’t certainly going to help and I really needed to focus on moving forward as fast as possible.
I suddenly stopped walking and began taking deep breaths while staring at the sky full of stars: it was so beautiful to be out there at night, completely alone! I wasn’t ready to let a stupid 90-minute nap kill my dream…“The only failure is the failure to try! Give all you have and never quit before passing out!“ I wishpered to myself.
I leaped forward and began working my way up the next uphill as fast as could. My body set into a steady, swift pace and before I knew it, I was up on the pass where I saw Rifugio Cuney. The refreshment point was actually in a big white tent next to the rifugio: I rushed in gasping for air and startled four runners who were there munching food.
It was a nearly six o’ clock and had climbed so fast I had actually gained some time but making it to Oyace first and then Ollemont before the respective cutoffs was still a tough going. The other runners began leaving and I told the three volontor I had fallen asleep if they thought I would take to next checkpoint. The youngest, probably in his late teens, calmly replied that I could still make it but I had to keep going at a good pace. He first looked at his watch, then typed something on his phone and told me the last runner to complete the Tor had been through this checkpoint in 2016 just a few minutes after 7:00 am. That meant I had a full 10 minutes lead on the last 2016 runner to become a gigante: not much but the fact that the volunteers were sharing hard data rather than trying to reassure me with speculation gave me hope. I thanked them several times and left.
I must have going as fast as I could which probably wasn’t fast at all but a few minutes later I caught up and passed the runners I had startled when barging into the tent at Cuney. I kept going and passed a few more on the climb to Col Chaleby. I kept an uncomfortable pace at the risk of burning myself out completely but if that had to be the price for trying til the very end, so be it! I had not much of a choice anyway, why even worry about it?
A house came into sight and I had a real fuck-yeah moment when all of sudden I realized it was actually Bivacco Clairmont, the next refreshment point. It was a tiny white house on top a mountain: I stopped outside, removed my pack, and tried to catch my breath; I was wheezing heavily so I decided to use my inhaler first, then barged in clumsily, still gasping for air. I found one sleepy volontor and a couple of runners at a table. To the right, I could see more runners lying on bunk beds in a side room resembling a closet. “How could so many people sleep crammed into such a small place and most of all why would anyone be sleeping here this late? Aren’t they worried they won’t make it to Ollemont?”, I wondered I just refilled the water bottles, drank a few cups of coke, and left right away. The sun had started rising and while I was fumbling to switch off my headlamp I nearly bumped into runner standing in the middle of the trail: it was Maruna, a runner from Japan I had kept crossing for much of the previous 100 kilometers. He was staring at something but wasn’t sure what. I immediately thought about another case of severe sleep deprivation so I asked him if he was OK. He smiled, then pointed the finger east and said “Look!”. I turned my head and realized there was a mind-blowing view of the sun rising over the Alps. I had been so focused on moving ahead fast that I had completely lost awareness of the beautiful alpine surroundings. I stood there for a long moment, just enjoying the warmth and breathtaking beauty of the gleaming snow-covered peaks in the distance. I would have loved to stay longer but couldn’t afford it anymore: I knew it wouldn’t be long before I’d start going downhill and that would certainly slow me down. “We don’t have much time!” I said. ‘Don’t hang around too long!”. Maruna nodded while offering a smile and I went off.
I kept a good pace for as long as I could, then the trail started heading downhill so I had to slow down because of the pain in my knees and both heels. A few runners passed me, then at around 9:00 am I finally caught a glimpse of the valley below through the trees in the valley below. Somebody climbing up in the opposite direction said it would be 15 minutes to the checkpoint and of course it could have been true… if only I had a pair of wings! The last section to the checkpoint lasted forever but eventually reached the village and found Caroline waiting for me there: I was really happy to see her. I eventually walked into the checkpoint at 10:30 am, 3 hours before the in cutoff, which was absolutely great. Nothing could be taken for granted of course but at least the situation was no longer as desperate as when I had left rifugio Magia.
I ate half a crostata only to realize they were also cooking fresh pasta: I had missed a chance to eat something different. I then went to the bathroom to wipe the dry sweat off key areas: when I saw myself in the mirror I realized I had lost even more weight! I had been eating such an insane amount of calories for five days and five nights I was expecting to have an obesity problem. Instead, I looked lean and mean – or maybe just lean and sleep-deprived… I probably hadn’t been this skinny since my early twenties and all it took was a mere 275 kilometers in the Alps… I loved the epic journey more and more!
When I was about to leave the checkpoint the volontor told me to wait as my GPS tracker apparently hadn’t been working properly, at least the one that allowed people to track my progress live; he assured, whoever, that if something had happened to me, they would have been still able to locate me – or at least locate my body! After fiddling with my tracker for almost 20 minutes, we all agreed it just wasn’t working so they just told me to ask for a replacement in Ollemont. I left and began the climb to the Col Bruson, the last col before the Life Base and before the last 50 Km to Courmayeur: I had started to feel real good by now!
On the way up I talked with the same people I had climbed out of Donnas and the atmosphere was cheerful: everybody was exhausted and struggling to keep going but the end didn’t feel that far away anymore. One more climb followed by another truly endless descent and found myself in Ollemont a few minutes before 4:00 pm, with just over an hour buffer from the check-in cutoff time.
The place looked like an old camping. There was a small long, one-story house serving as a restaurant. I could smell the roasted potatoes when I came in. Caroline had been waiting for me there talking to friends and families of other runners. I gave her a list of dishes to get for me and it sounded like I was ordering food for a dinner party but instead, it was just for me. I then headed to the showers which were basically in concrete sheds with doors. The bad news was there were only three showers; the good news by now there were 30% fewer people attempting to complete the Tor, almost 200 hundred were still behind, over 300 had already been through. I had to wait a good 20 minutes but killed time chatting with a funny man from Australia I had met earlier on; then I got my shower and went to the white serving as changing, waiting, sleeping room, and of course field hospital. The only difference with the previous life bases is that field hospital scene was now verging on a morgue. I could see somebody on a stretcher breathing oxygen through a mask while the doctor was calmly explained to him that he was just fine. This far into the Tor, I had seen it all: people on the verge of death who were still doing whatever they could to keep going and those who had fallen to the virus and had convinced themselves they wouldn’t make it. Of course, it wasn’t so clear-cut and there were many people who decided to quit or were told to drop out because of genuine safety concerns. A decision that gets the more and more difficult to make as you get closer to making it back to Courmayeur. As they say “do what you have to do”.
I changed into clean Iinjinji socks and a new t-shirt. Spread plenty of cream into areas subject to chafing, and decided to keep my Ultra Raptor for the last stretch: being so tired and paranoid something would happen, I wanted to wear the shoes with the best grip, even if not the most comfortable ones. And mostly, I changed into a clean pair of softshell pant Caroline had brought over from the duffel bag in the apartment: after 5 days around the Alps wearing the same sweaty and muddy pants, getting a change was like winning a lottery ticket – I must have had tears of joy streaming down my eyes when I touched the clean, soft 2L Windstopper Active fabric!
After going through the kit in my pack twice to ensure I had all mandatory gear as well as anything else I considered necessary or common sense to have with me, I closed my yellow drop bag, gave to a volontor, and went to the dining room where a few dishes of freshly cooked food were waiting for me. Caroline was sitting there talking to the possessed guy – the one who was talking in his sleep in the haunted house at Vareton. He was complaining about not having slept well because the other guy in the room had been snoring. He then saw me and must have suddenly realized he had been complaining about me to my better half: more than possessed he was simply unlucky! Soon Erwin, another runner from Ireland, and Maruna joined at the table to have a meal. I delved into the food as if I had been fasting for a week and then for roughly thirty minutes it felt like I was laid-back camping holiday with a bunch of old friends rather than a 350-Km ultra-endurance event across the highest massifs of the western Italian Alps: I completely forgot about the feat ahead and enjoyed the late afternoon social break.
It wasn’t for very long though as the clock was ticking: I had just over one hour left before the 7:00 pm Out cutoff time so as soon as I was done eating, I kitted up and left.
I walked out of Ollemont in the warm glow of the evening sun with just over 21 hours left to complete the last section of the Tor Des Geants: a mere 50 Km with a cumulative climb of 4200 meters. In theory, it was perfectly feasible but having been through an official 290 Km and with only 5 hours of sleep, I knew I could no longer even keep a decent pace. Besides, at the Tor nothing could be taken for granted: each time I had expected it to get easier, it had come back to bite me in the ass and I was not going to make that same mistake again! To make things worse, the glorious all-out effort to blaze the last two cols to Ollemont had literally smashed me.
I still had that one last magic shot though: that unyielding desire that makes us accomplish the seemingly impossible; that unwavering resilience that drives us to never quit and never surrender… If it had gotten me this far, if it had made me perform at my very best even when the situation seemed hopeless, then I could sure make it to the streets of Courmayeur on Saturday before 4:21 pm!