Before Tor

Tor des Geants is one of those races whose lottery is weighted in favour of those who have failed to get in multiple times. When I put my name down in February I thought I was just keeping my tickets topped up to be sure of a place in some future year. With last year’s cancellation and pandemic uncertainty, this year’s race was undersubscribed; everyone who applied got in. When the email arrived I didn’t know if I should be delighted or horrified.

Since then, uncertainty. Would it happen? Would I be able to travel? Would I want to travel?

How much quarantine would I be willing to do, before or after, to run a race that is a must-do for any mountain ultra runner?

For most of the year I’ve been on the fence about whether or not the race would go ahead. About whether I even wanted it to go ahead. Part of me hoped that two vaccine doses would give you carte blanche to go wherever and do whatever, another part hoped that the race would be called off in May and I’d be free to make other plans.

I had always imagined that when I eventually ran Tor I’d make a proper fist of it; a summer in the Alps, training on the course and getting accustomed to the altitude. That obviously wasn’t going to happen so I started convincing myself of the merits of going in as a tourist; see most of the course for the first time during the race and gaze wide-eyed at the Alpine splendour, even while coughing my lungs up on top of Col Losson.

Through all the uncertainty and navel gazing, an element of pragmatism remained. If Tor did end up being canned then whatever I replaced it with would require much the same kind of fitness, so I kept muddling through; a steady-Eddie Ramsay’s Round with Ian Stewart in June, six or seven weeks of ~8,000m+ through July and August, a little cycling, a little home gym, a little stoicism about two grizzly achilles. Definitely not perfect, but hopefully good enough.

In the end I’ve split the difference between well-prepared athlete and the wide-eyed tourist, blagging a lift to Courmayeur with a dejected Cork hurling fan and two welsh sheep dog/collie crosses. We arrived early last week, a little less than 3 weeks before the race and a little more than 2 weeks after my absolute piss-take of a holiday request was approved.

I’m glad to have had the opportunity of a few long runs out here. If nothing else, running in the Alps is fucking great. But already I’m thinking that I could be in much better shape for future Tors if I did spend the summer here. I plod along at a casual all-day long run pace, thinking that the altitude is no big deal, then take a 3 second drink and end up gasping like a landed mackerel. Laps of Meall a’ Bhuachaille are great but repeated 1000m+ descents do put a special kind of buzz in your quads.

But for now it’s taper time. No more long runs, just a double header of races at Nasego this weekend. VK on the Saturday, long race on the Sunday. Not the textbook approach to a 4 day race but something to keep the taper jitters at bay and to qualify for a by-the-book quarantine exemption.

The overwhelming feeling now is one of excitement. I’m spending my rest days learning the locations of the life bases, trying to memorise the rough profile of each leg, and trying to pluck the ripe fruits of Paul’s experience.

Getting your hair cut to the scalp and running the first day without a hat on: BAD IDEA.

Running the first day as if it’s a hundred miler: GOOD IDEA. . .if you plan on trying to win. Which I don’t. Still, interesting.

Tor will be the longest race I’ve done. The longest I’ve done on my own by a very long way. It’s intimidating as hell, but sooner or later you need to get on with doing the things that you’ve always said that someday you’d do.

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