I know this is long. I’m sorry. It used to be longer.
Part 1: The Beginning
The first night of Tor des Geants, I arrived at the Eaux Rousses aid station with Paul Tierney at 2:30 am. Paul left without me at about 2:45 and it was some time after 3 that I ejected the contents of my stomach on the grass outside the tent. Everything that had gone in in the last 3 hours came out again, describing a broad, elegant arc through the crisp night air of Val d’Aosta.
I’d never been sick during a race before. It was a spectacular debut.
I’d been in tourist mode for the 80km to that point, chumming along with Paul and James, looking at the views, reminding myself that it was impossible to go too easy. We’d been fumbling round the edges of the Gran Paradiso National Park and it was gorgeous, maybe the most beautiful part of the whole route. I spent much of that first day thinking, out loud, loudly, that long runs in the mountains are very obviously the best thing in the world.
Me and Paul seemed to have found a rhythm we were both happy with. We already felt quite tired as we arrived in Valgrisenche, walking a good chunk of the valley trail up to the first lifebase after less than 50k. But that’s often how it goes in very long races. You get tired, you stay tired, you hope you don’t get much tireder.
We got through there without much delay, changing clothes, repacking bags, getting ready for the night and watching Kyle Curtin eat pasta like a spaniel who’s found a kebab on a Sunday morning.
There was a definite feeling of increasing effort on the climbs for me around this point; shallow breathing, mild nausea, stomach slightly full. I put it down to the cumulative effect of trips up high, two 2,800m+ passes before Valgrisenche, another one after, and consoled myself with the thought that by the time we got to the next lifebase in Cogne all the race’s highest ground would be behind us.
I tried to stick as close behind Paul as I could, eat when I could and hang on for the downhills, which felt a bit easier. Paul would drift off, then come back, then drift off again, himself a bit nauseous.
We survived Col Entrollor, over 3000m (just), graveyard of Paul’s 2 previous Tors, and coasted the 1,300m down to Eaux Rousses.
I felt alright when we arrived. Stomach still a litte funny but no reason to suspect that things were about to fall apart. We were 2 thirds of the way through the second leg; one more climb and descent and we would be in Cogne, 2 legs down and back in the sunshine.
For the second time in as many trips to Aosta I walked into a Tor aid station to find John Kelly sitting with a thousand yard stare. Me and Paul listened to his tales of woe while we nibbled on aid station food.
Very, very suddenly, I did not feel alright.
Maybe it was John’s recounting of his difficulties. Maybe it was the sudden transition from the cool outdoors to a very warm tent. Or maybe it was the guy on the bench a few metres away, slumped forward on the table, being sick on the floor between his feet.
Whatever it was, I instantly felt very light-headed and more urgently nauseous. (I’d compare the feeling to the time I fainted in a Keswick pizzeria after my failed BG, but I can’t remember if I’ve ever written that story down.)
I mumbled something about being back in a minute, walked outside, quickly, and lay down on the ground with my feet up on a bench. People were milling around. Supporters waiting for their runners, general hangers on. Nobody paid me much attention.
You can get solipsistic in moments like this. I couldn’t fathom why people weren’t rushing over to see what the matter was, wringing their hands in anguish that my race wasn’t going to plan. But even then, on the first night, 80k in, there were casualties everywhere; the guy inside picking chunks out of his laces was evidently in worse shape than I was. We all have our own little melodramas, and for the most part, no-one’s interested.
After a few minutes of savouring that crisp night air, my view of the sky was blocked by a woman with a red cross on her jacket. She asked some questions and clearly wasn’t satisfied with the grunts, grins and half-hearted thumbs ups she got in return. Dragging me to my unsteady feet, she insisted I take her elbow as she guided me into a tent full of cots.
I lay there for a while, staring at the ceiling til the light got too much, then lying with a blanket pulled up over my face like a body in a morgue til the heat got too much, wondering what the problem was.
After a while I got up and wandered back to the food tent. Paul had left. Reluctantly, he later claimed, as he had no idea where I’d gone. I got some orzo and broth and sat down, determined to settle my stomach with Real Food.
I ate one spoonful, then another. I managed a third before stopping on the fourth, spoon halfway to my mouth. I waited for a couple of seconds, concentrating hard on the table in front of me. I took a few deep, calming breaths through my nose.
Spoon down, on my feet, out of the tent even faster than the last time. I don’t know where I was trying to get to, I suppose just as far away from people as I could. I made it just beyond the portaloos, right on the edge of the light from the aid station, before throwing up.
Twenty minutes earlier I’d wanted everyone to notice me and take pity. Now I was praying that no-one had noticed me. No such luck.
As I sat slumped on the grass, feeling relieved and exhausted, one of John’s crew, a group of 4 local students clad in matching, brand new, bright yellow La Sportiva fleeces, appeared with a cup of water and some toilet roll for me to wipe my face. I was very grateful, but also mortified; whether she had seen or heard (or smelled?) me chucking my guts up, this probably wasn’t the Grand Tour of Aosta that she thought she was signing up for.
After a while I staggered back to my cot and crawled back under the heavy blanket, now shivering quite violently. I tried to sleep, just to make the time go faster, but I don’t think I did.
Gnarly old ultra vets talk in very blasé terms about being sick in races. How it’s totally normal, something you should expect and plan for. But it definitely felt like the end of the world. A race I’d wanted to do for I don’t know how many years, a spectacular course, one of the sport’s iconic events and here was I, spraying masticated pasta into the darkness and coming up 280 kilometres short. I’d paid however many hundred euro to be here, got 4 weeks off work to come over and fuck around (sorry, train) before hand; it would be embarrassing to drop out on the first night.
I don’t think I was ever actually considering stopping. It was a question of whether I might have to, rather than would I want to. That same voice that says how marvellous it would be to break a leg 70 miles into a hundred miler, just so you can stop, suggested that maybe I’d picked up a bug. I like to think everyone has that voice, the bit that would be a tiny bit secretly relieved if some act of god ended your race.
Anyway, gradually that line of thinking faded. Perhaps I was just passing the time. Eventually even I got bored of my melodrama and started considering what I needed to do to get ready to continue.
I’d rested a while, the bilious feeling in my stomach had subsided. I got up.
Back in the aid station, again, I sat with all my clothes on, still shaking uncontrollably and cautiously slotting crumbs of dry bread and crackers between my chattering teeth. Slowly I became more and more confident that the food would stay put, and as the crumbs went in, my mood improved. This is what ultras are about; problem solving, perseverance. . . It all felt very empowering.
Three hours after I’d arrived I strutted out of Eaux Rousses with a spring in my step, a smile on my face and half a loaf stuffed in the pocket of my race vest.
Nobody wept, nobody cheered, nobody even noticed. A residue of solipsism remained and I was fractionally disappointed. Still, it felt like a victory. I was carried forth on a wave of pride and optimism.
A wave that broke, ankle high and pathetic, on the lower slopes of Col Losson.
Obviously. I had essentially had nothing to eat or drink for the last 6 hours and Col Losson is a monster; 1,650m+ in 12.5 kilometres, up to 3,299m, the highest point of the race. It was predictably shit; low energy, sore, body temperature all over the place. A hideous grind.
The hour before sunrise is always the hardest part of the night and sleepiness took over as I neared the top. As the sky turned grey I was kicking rocks, tripping over my poles and weaving all over the place. I tried a few micro naps, holding my poles gently so that I’d drop them as I lost consciousness and the noise would wake me up. It was a trick Lawrence had showed me at Euforia and I remembered it being very effective.
It did fuck all.
In the end, carbohydrate saved the day. My micro naps did nothing, a caramel Gu (one of approximately 471 that James Elson brought over with him) turned me into a new man. Food is your friend when it comes to combating sleepiness. Napping helps, sunshine helps, caffeine helps, but most people would find themselves significantly more alert if they just snacked more.
Revived, I cruised the 15 kilometres downhill to the second lifebase in Cogne, where I found Robbie and Nats. (“We’ll do as much crewing as possible for as little effort as possible.”) They already knew of my stomach trouble.
“Have you got any salt tablets?” I dug around in my race vest and pulled out a tiny ziploc bag.
“Ok, five. Have you actually taken any?”
Robbie used words like osmolality to explain why I was a moron, scary words like coma to make sure I took him seriously, added a few dozen S-Caps to my ziploc bag and bundled me off towards Fenetre de Champorcher.
(This kind of linguistic jiggery-pokery is (probably) covered in the crewing chapter of Robbie’s book, 1001 Running Tips.)
The leg from Cogne to Donnas is the easiest of the Tor, or at least the least time consuming. It’s a long, long, gradual climb to Fenetre de Champorcher, over 17 kilometres, most of it on roads of one sort or another, then just 30 kilometres of descending to Donnas, where the race crosses from the south to the north side of Val d’Aosta.
It’s a 3 aid station descent. I don’t imagine there are many of them in the world.
Part 2: The Middle
There are six lifebases on the Tor. Big valley checkpoints, there’s pretty much everything you might want or need; food, beds, showers, physio and access to your Tor Bag, a ~50 litre duffel that the organisers hump around for you.
There’s also the potential to waste an absolute fuck load of time. This is something I have prior for; between Euforia’s 4 lifebases me and Lawrence spent TWENTY ONE HOURS. This is not tactically optimal.
My approach to Tor was to not hang around, but also to make the most of the rejuvinating potential of what the lifebases offer. Clean socks and pasta had pretty much been the height of it in Valgrisenche and Cogne, but as I arrived in Donnas it was getting dark and I prepared for a lengthier stop.
I ate, had a massage, showered, slept and ate again. On paper a success, but I ended up leaving feeling frustrated.
On the massage table, the physios grabbed handfuls of my quads and shook them enthusiastically while my hip flexors started to cramp.
Upstairs, I lay fidgeting on a cot in a hot room while the sound of clapping and cheering drifted in through the open windows and runners around me tossed and turned and huffed and puffed.
I padded into the showers before realising I didn’t have any soap, and stood there getting wet.
Back to the physios, this time to get a little tape on my heels, twenty minutes went by as two k-tape artisans painted their masterpiece all over my lower legs. As I rolled off the table one of them was almost in tears.
“You have the most beautiful. . .” . . .calves? “. . .tape.” He wasn’t wrong. “You are the first person to get the yellow tape,” he told me. Clearly, it was a great honour.
It was also nearly midnight.
After 3 and a half hours I finally stumbled out of Donnas into the night, wondering where the time had gone.
Leg 4, from Donnas to Gressoney, is funny. An in between section; definitely not the beginning any more, and you’re into the north side of the valley, but you’re not quite heading for home. It’s a kind of limbo that joins the rest of the race together.
The stop/start, up/down, discontinuous, disorientating climb from Donnas to Rifugio Coda sets the tone. Unlike other legs, it is not defined by long climbs and descent to high passes, but rather by a load of smaller ups and downs at lower elevation. Rough ground, shallow angled contouring, lots and lots of farting around. A look at the elevation profile makes it look rather easy. It’s not. It’s the hardest of the race.
For me, the whole leg was really, really weird. Two nights in, less than an hour’s sleep, the trip to Gressoney took place under a film of irreality. I was starting to get disconnected from what I was doing.
It was like the race had been put on hold. I know the course after Gressoney, having done almost all of it in Tot Dret, the 130k race that goes from there to Courmayeur, in 2019. Once I was there I could begin to speculate what sort of time might be possible and strategise accordingly. But before I could begin to make any plans, I needed to know how long this leg from Donnas would take.
In my slightly fuzzy state, some bit of subconscious got hold of this idea and twisted it until finding out how long the leg was going to take was the whole point. I forgot that I was in the race and stumbled along, treating it like a recce. I’d see the Tor flags marking the course and think Man, that would be such a cool thing to be a part of. . .
Even allowing for the fact that I might have been dawdling, it went on forever. However many climbs you thought there were, there was always one more, all a little longer and a little rougher than you might have liked.
I scoffed at the guy at Lago Chiaro who told me it was about another 7 hours to Gressoney. Pffft, whatever Grampa, watch this. . . He was more or less spot on.
Descending to Niel I could hear the cowbells from half an hour away. It was torture. Adding to my angst was my inability to remember the name, Niel. It was a place I’d never been but which had come up many times in conversation with Paul because the aid station there serves polenta.
All I could think was Fénis, another town in Aosta, which I have also never been to, and which is nowhere near the Tor course. It sounds silly now, but I found this very frustrating, almost upsetting.
A massive bowl of polenta, the culinary highlight of the race, kept me a little more lucid on the climb back out of Niel. That and the company of Julien, who spent a good while telling me all about his various runs at PTL before ‘fessing up to the fact that he’d run it this year, finishing barely 2 weeks before the start of the Tor.
Finally, we reached the rounded, unremarkable top of Col Lasoney, the last of the leg. Boulders gave way to grass, even a little homesickness-inducing bog, as we began the long descent to Gressoney. My legs at this point felt absolutely battered; mellow gradients, soft footing and it was still a massive effort to maintain any sort of run. Julien almost dropped me while sending work emails on his phone. I was stiff and sore, trying very hard not to consider the likelihood of this turning around in the next 140 kilometres.
Julien gradually drifted off on the steeper zig-zagging trail down to the valley floor. Maintaining a decent pace at this stage is as much about staying focussed as it is about having good legs, and I was thinking about ice cream.
Out of the trees and off the trails, the last 50 kilometres had taken 17 hours and it was another interminable two and a half kilometres of tarmac to the lifebase. I walked the whole way.
Part 3: The End
My transition through the Gressoney lifebase was 1,000,000 times better (approx.) than in Donnas, for one simple reason.
Robbie and Nats were back.
And they’d brought me a pizza. It was cold by the time I arrived but that didn’t matter. Robbie covered it in brown sauce, I folded it in half and shoved it in my mouth.
The crew tent here was right by the lifebase door so while I changed socks and mulled over my costume changes (“Ally, are you chewing while you do that? Why not?”) Robbie fiddled about filling bottles and repacking my bag. (“You’ve had these bars since Cogne, I’m just going to take them out.”)
I ducked inside to use the toilet, change and apply chamois cream to some very personal areas (another first). If I didn’t already know how lucky I was to have Robbie and Nats giving me a kick up the arse, wandering through the lifebase past all the glassy-eyed crewless runners really brought it home. They looked just like I had 18 hours before.
Julien was stopping to sleep but with a few hours of daylight left I’d decided to push on. Partly because I was loath to waste more time trying to sleep at silly times of day, partly to avoid being caught up in the rush of the Tot Dret which would be starting from Gressoney at 9pm.
The next leg is short, just 36 kilometres, and, unlike the one before, easy to understand; two big climbs, two big descents. I’d sleep an hour in Champoluc at halfway, then again for a little longer at the next lifebase in Valtournenche.
I distributed mumbled grazies to the aid station staff and wandered off up the valley, nibbling the remainder of my pizza crusts and sending Paul abusive voicenotes.
My second sleep of the race in Champoluc was little better than the first in Gressoney. I set my alarm for an hour but again got up before it went off; my 3 hour head start on Tot Dret had disappeared already and there was understandable, noisy excitement as the first runners came through.
Short changed as I was on my nap, it was nice to have more people around for the long slog up to Col di Nana. The rate at which people were passing me gradually slowed until I was more or less on par with the runners around me.
For about the next 24 hours the aid stations were busy again. Tot Dret runners outnumbered Tor runners 20 to 1 and while everyone had access to all the same facilities, Tor runners did seem to have a special status, both among the aid station staff and the Tot Dret Runners.
On arrival the volunteers scanning you in might loudly announce your arrival, Corridore del Tor!, and more than once people made a point of moving aside so I could get to the food. In Oyace a Tot Dret runner’s crew came over and filled my bottles for me, unprompted, and almost unthanked as she put the lids back on, handed them to me, smiled and walked away.
Initially this made me really uncomfortable, but then I remembered being on the other side of that divide 2 years ago and having similar feelings of deference towards the runners in the longer race. After that I just thought it was cool and, just once or twice, allowed it to stroke my ego when I thought there was a performance benefit to be had in feeling big-headed.
I mucked about longer than I should have in the Valtournenche lifebase, but I did at least get a good sleep. A 90 minute alarm and my head was barely on the pillow before Debbie Harry was screaming in my ear to wake me up.
Sitting on my cot in the windowless sports hall, I got dressed, faffed a little and put on a fresh layer of suncream. It wasn’t the first time I’d slathered on factor 30 in the middle of the night and it always made me feel a bit silly. Even sillier on this occasion as I walked outside into the pissing rain.
Til now the weather had been pretty much ideal. A bit warm the first couple of days but calm, dry and not too cold at night. I’d had a jacket on for some of the bigger passes in the dark but had never been uncomfortable.
Even now, the weather never really got that bad. Light rain most of the third day, just a few heavy, thundery downpours on the descent to Oyace. Still, I was glad to have packed hill walking waterproofs in my Tor bag. Being uncomfortable in a hill race is one thing, being uncomfortable all day on the 3rd day of a race is another. Jogging down through the woods, coccooned in Gore-Tex with the rain bouncing off my hood made me irrationally happy.
The rain had the added benefit of washing off the blood from a spectacular nosebleed. Earlier in the race I’d developed a small scab in my right nostril. Because of altitude, duration of exercise, just coincidence, I’m not sure, but I did the obvious thing; poked it, prodded it, generally worried at it for days until I was stumbling through the woods with one hand pinching my nose and the other clamping a buff to my upper lip. There was blood on my jacket, my race number, my shoes. If it wasn’t for the rain I’d have arrived at the aid station looking like something from a horror film.
Climbing out of Oyace I was joined by a different Julien and, for a short while, some cows. They ambled on ahead, blocking the narrow singletrack, the hill side on either side too steep and wooded to make passing feasible. I thought this was hilarious and wandered along, taking photos and giggling. Eventually, Julien, a lot more lucid than I was, had had enough and came by, shouting and swinging his poles at the cows arses until one by one they obligingly stood aside and let us pass.
A little further on I was the cause of further delays as I stopped to stare back down into the clouds. There was a shape down there, just at the edge of the mist, that I was sure was a goat. A fucking massive goat. Perched right on the edge of a cliff, horns curling up and back to double its height. What the fuck is that? I asked.
Julien paused. . . “It is a tree. It cannot be a goat, see, it has no front legs.” Again, I thought this was hilarious. I think Julien came close to swinging his poles at my arse this time. “Come on, that’s done now, we go.” Sorry Julien.
Aside from a single blister on the end of my right big toe, the product of a funky bit of sock seam, I had zero problems with my feet the entire race. But they did get itchy as hell. On the steeper climbs, walking uphill on the balls of my feet, I could feel the skin right behind my toes getting irritated and took to making foot fists while I walked, trying to create as much friction between my foot and my shoe as I could
Eventually the itching became more or less permanent and as we descended a farm track into Ollomont, the final lifebase, my face was a permanent snarl. I got into the lifebase, sat down, whisked my shoes and socks off and went to town scratching the hell out of my feet.
People always want to know about the highs and lows of a race like Tor. I think they want stories of self-transcendence or finding oneness with the natural world.
Fuck that, this was the best part of my race; digging my fingernails into soft, flakey epidermus. It was fucking heaven. There were no mirrors around but I imagine I had the kind of blissful expression you usually only see on the face of a dog that’s rolling in a two-week-dead seal. Just thinking about it now is enough to make me smile.
The staff in Ollomont were a more laid-back bunch than in previous livebases, giving permission for Nats to come into the crew tent as well as Robbie. Implicit or explicit permission I can’t remember, but they didn’t kick her out. Great for me, less good for Nats who had a front row seat to my fetishistic depravity.
Itches scratched, finger nails full of dead skin, I went straight to the slab of focaccia that was sitting on the table. In hindsight, that was fucking gross. Actually, hindsight be damned, I knew at the time that I was an absolute minger, I just didn’t care.
Robbie was getting competitive on my behalf. There were only a couple of other runners in the tent, set aside as it was solely for Tor runners, but certain corners had the air of a M*A*S*H unit. One guy staggered out looking like he was ready to be choppered to Seoul. “You could sleep for 3 hours and still beat that guy.”
Looking at my splits now, spending less time in the life bases would be one area I would try to gain time in a future Tor, but I was still a lot slicker than most. Or at least I was when Nats and Robbie were around.
I bent down to tie my shoes. “Chewing Ally?” Yes sir, of course sir, sorry sir.
Setting off from Ollomont just before dark, I made the same decision I had made in Gressoney; get a wiggle on, sleep in the next valley. That decision would create tons of fun.
I was jealous of the volunteers at Rifugio Champillon. They were a young crowd, and doing their job with gusto; hammering the shit out of a selection of cowbells, shouting themselves hoarse at every headtorch that crawled up the hill towards them. Given that you could see the rifugio a good 30 minutes before you got there, this was a lot of shouting. They had a fire pit, music, youthful enthusiasm. I had tired legs, sleep monsters and a cold nose.
The climb to Col Champillon, longer than you think it is, but if you haven’t learned to accept that by the fourth night then there’s really no hope for you, passed pleasantly enough making up lyrics for my new ear worm. After 84 hours humming Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, increasingly reluctantly and in spite of a concerted effort to replace it with Help Me Rhonda (Help Me Ronda?), I’d moved on to making up chorus after chorus for In the Life Base. You can probably guess the tune.The descent from the col dragged on and on, made worse by the fact that there was no-one else around. After the buzz of the rifugio young team I was craving human contact.
I became impatient to get down and see the lovely family that run the bike hire place at the bottom.
There is no bike hire place. Just a small aid station in a farm yard at Ponteille Desot. But between that and Saint-Rhémy-en-Bosse there are 12 kilometres of undulating fireroad. It’s by far the longest section of the race without single track trail. . .and it would be much quicker and easier by bike.
Again, some sliver of a vaguely rational thought had detached itself from its context, wandered off to take root in some other part of my mind and built a brand new story around itself.
From Donnas to Gressoney, the belief that I was on a recce was in a sense adjacent to the truth, but each subsequent delusion seemed to be a little further away from reality. Maybe as a consequence of that, they also seemed to get more detailed; each level of weirdness required more substance to make it plausible.
I left Ponteille Desot, on foot.
Before the race had even started I’d made a commitment to run as much of this fireroad as possible, regardless of pace. Maintaining an easy trot is no more physically painful than a brisk, or not so brisk, walk but it requires a little concentration, and that’s what’s hard. I tried and failed to get going a few times before finally slotting into some kind race walk-legal jog.
Low level, non-technical terrain, no mental space taken up thinking about foot placements or layering, this kind of running allows you to zone out a little. Approaching the last valley checkpoint of the race, it was the perfect time to think ahead, to do some strategising. Doing so brought out the best delusion of the whole race.
Earlier, when I’d turned my phone on to bully Paul, I’d had a few messages, including two from Finlay Wild. The first asked if Highland Hill Runners were sending a team to the FRA relays in Tebay, the second acknowledged that I was probably a bit busy and should ignore the first.
So did I start to think I was running the FRA relays? Or that the next aid station was Tebay services? No.
For much of the last night of the race I thought I was Finlay.
The plausibility-adding substance of this belief was that it was important that I get some sleep in Saint Rhémy because the final pass of the race would take me back into Lochaber and I wanted to give a good account of myself on home turf.
Delusions of grandeur, I know.
This sounds over the top. Like a symptom of a serious neurological problem. It isn’t. People really ham it up when they talk about their experiences in very long races, but as bizarre as this kind of depersonalisation sounds to a non sleep deprived brain, at the time it’s totally mundane. Being Finlay wasn’t something that was ever put into words as such. It wasn’t an explicit thought, any more than I got up this morning and said to myself I am Ally Beaven, that is my name, and today I am going to drink decaf tea and hammer at my laptop.
Think is the wrong word. It’s not a thought, it’s a belief. Stative, rather than active. There’s no deduction or rationalisation that creates that belief, it’s just there.
I didn’t even feel particularly bad while this was going on. I was moving well, eating and drinking was going ok and I maintained that something-a-bit-like-a-run for the majority of the fireroad, passing Tot Dret runners who were either knackered or in the huff.
It was just that when I went through sleepy patches, reality would warp a little bit. Intrusive thoughts, except they skip your conscious brain and go straight to tinkering with your basic assumptions about what’s real.
I’d notice it was happening, laugh at myself, and continue. It was never something I was concerned about. It’s not that unusual either. When Paul had tottered along that same stretch earlier that night he thought he was Sarah.
One part my delusion was correct; right though; I wasn’t Finlay and I wasn’t headed towards Lochaber, but if I wanted to give a good account of myself I should probably get some sleep.
After a tolerable eternity I got to Saint Rhémy. An attentive aid station volunteer brought me some pasta. I asked him if there was somewhere I could sleep.
“Mmmmmm, no, is not possible. . .unless you are. . .” he waved both his hands around in front of his stomach, “. . .baaad.”
This wasn’t entirely unexpected. The organisers had said before the event that we would only be able to sleep in the lifebases, not in the refuges, because of fears of overcrowding and covid. This would be fine if it was consistent, but it wasn’t. I’d already slept at Eaux Rousse and in Champoluc, not lifebases, and there had been people snoozing away happily in at least a couple of the refuges.
Tor is an unbelievable race, but the quality and consistency of communication leaves something to be desired. Later, it turned out that Paul had slept for 20 minutes in Saint Rhémy; bed, blanket, the whole thing. I don’t think he was any more (hand waving) baaad than I was, he just happened to ask the right person.
Not baaad enough to be triaged, I scalded my mouth on some crappy instant coffee and shuffled out of the tent. With a little more caffeine I reckoned I could make it the 1,000m up to Rifugio Frassati without falling asleep on my feet.
I was fairly confident I would get a nap there. The races were spreading out again and the next and final pass, Malatra, was reasonably technical; steep, loose, ropes and chains. Sending sleep deprived runners up there in the middle of the night would just be irresponsible…
But they wouldn’t let me sleep there either. No matter how much me and Axel, my new German Tot Dret friend, made a show of yawning, rubbing our eyes and resting our heads on the table. There was no-one else there. Just the 2 of us and 3 aid station staff in the whole place.
Apart from my wobble on Col Loson, I’d managed to go the whole race without feeling the real heavy-headed, foggy-minded sleep deprivation that I’d been dreading so much. It’s part and parcel of doing races like this but good god it’s an awful feeling.
If you’ve never experienced it, the only thing I can think to compare it to is extreme thirst. You can’t think about anything else. It gets into every part of you; not only is your mouth dry, somehow your toes are thirsty too. Then when you put a glass of cool water to your lips and it seems to flood through your entire body. The relief is exquisite.
Sleep deprived, that’s what it feels like to lie down, close your eyes and allow yourself to relax as you plummet into unconsciousness.
Except when you’re racing you don’t do that. The solution is right there, all the time, you just need to stop and lie down, but you have to repeatedly, constantly push it away so you can keep moving forward.
Whether the folks at Frassati were arseholes, jobsworths or just kind-hearted volunteers hamstrung by the organisation’s idiocy, there was clearly nothing to be gained by hanging around so me and Axel took our football and left in the huff. It was a quarter past 2 in the morning.
I was anxious about getting over Malatra. I knew I was very, very tired. Maybe being a bit scared helped, a little extra adrenaline to take the edge off the haziness.
Though I suspect the amphetamine gels also helped. I can’t remember exactly what’s in them (it isn’t actually amphetamines, honest) but they were Donnie’s go-to afternoon pick-me-up on his Munro round. There’s a warning on the packet that they aren’t suitable for pregnant women and that you shouldn’t take more than one a day. I’d had two that night, plus some coke, plus a couple of run of the mill caffeine gels. But, to the best of knowledge, I wasn’t pregnant, so that was probably fine.
Me and my saucer-sized eyeballs moved very deliberately through the final few metres to the top of the col; right hand to that rope, left foot to this steel step, left hand blue, right hand green. We made it up without incident.
Malatra is the iconic image of the Tor. A narrow gap in the ridge, it forms a frame for an incredible view of the Brenva Face of Monte Bianco. There are approximately 10,000 photos of Tor runners standing in this gap, arms aloft, about to begin their triumphant charge down to the finish in Courmayeur.
I was feeling more relieved than triumphant, but the poor photographer was a young guy, stationed up there all alone in the middle of the night, so I accepted his offer of a few photos. I’ve since had at least 20 emails trying to cajole me into paying 100 euro for half a dozen pictures of myself standing with my arms at my sides looking absolutely fucking gormless.
Sleepy as I was, I think I did my best running of the race after Malatra. This has happened to me before, cruising through the last leg of Euforia in 2017 (until my quads absolutely shat the bed) and I’m at a bit of a loss to explain it.
The proximity of the finish line? Vast quantities of caffeine? Something in my brain shrugging its shoulders and stopping sending pain signals after 2 days of them being studiously ignored? I have no idea (though I’d be very interested to know if anyone does). Whatever it was, there’s some smooth, runnable trail between Malatra and Courmayeur and the ground seemed to glide by beneath my feet.
Arriving in Gressoney thirty something hours earlier, it had taken a real effort to muster a downhill tarmac jog into the lifebase. Now, descending to the Tour du Mont Blanc trail, I was cruising.
(Or at least I felt like I was. The resolution of my GPS trace is too low to check what my actual pace was. It thinks my 323rd kilometre took 2 seconds. This is probably a good thing, I doubt I was going nearly as fast as I thought I was.)
The muddy, undulating TMB section dragged on and on, the lights of the Skyway Monte Bianco on the opposite side of the valley crawling by at an appropriately glacial pace, finally disappearing over my right shoulder as I walked up the short rise to the very last checkpoint of the race above Rifugio Bertone. There were the usual offers of soup, coffee, coke. I didn’t want anything. Pausing now seemed silly.
I started the final descent to Courmayeur.
I wasn’t desperate for it to be over. I wasn’t counting down the metres as I dropped towards town. I knew the finish was at the bottom of this hill but I didn’t have any particularly strong feelings about it. I wasn’t pushing and I wasn’t holding back, I was just running, much as I had been for the last four days.
It was only when I passed an American woman near the bottom of the trail, an especially keen TMBer, well underway at 7am, who offered a slightly breathless but very sincere well done that I started trying to think about the Tor as a whole. I felt like I should be overwhelmed, but I wasn’t.
In part because I found it very hard to conceive of the run as one big journey. I still do. You spend so much time, before and during the race, pulling it apart, breaking it down into individual legs, ticking off each col and each valley, that it is very difficult to put it all back together again. Treating a race like Tor like a stage race, telling yourself that you’re starting from scratch 7 times, is what makes it possible for a lot of runners to get through. Perhaps the loss of a global perspective on the race is the tradeoff for this.
More than that, when you’re sleep deprived, it’s not just your conception of the present that gets messed up. Your memory does strange things too. On the Wednesday of Tor, I’d think about places I’d been or people I’d been with on the Monday and the memories would have the feel of something I’d done years ago. By the third or fourth night many runners will experience repeated déjà vu, instantly recognising places they know they’ve never been before. (If you want some interesting, though unconfirmed, theories about why this happens have a look at dual processing theory.)
Even as I turned the race’s final corner and swerved out into the road to run under the banner which had marked the start a little less than 4 days ago, closing the loop, I couldn’t fit the whole thing into my head at once. Maybe that isn’t actually possible.
And maybe that’s a shame. Perhaps I would have preferred to cross the finish line in floods of tears and bear hug the closest volunteer. I’ve never really been one for the finish line euphoria that some people seem to get at long ultras. Presumably the same people who pump their fists in the air at Col Malatra. It could just be that none of my longer races have gone particularly well, compounded by my irritating habit of finishing at silly times of day when the atmosphere is a bit muted. Or I might just be a miserable bastard.
Quarter past 7, It was quiet. I picked off a final few Tot Dret runners on the run up the High Street. The few people who were waiting for friends to finish or setting out tables outside cafes clapped and cheered and I did my best to smile and wave.
The finish was always going to be an anticlimax. You climb the ramp to the finish line, someone hangs a medal round your neck and you’re funnelled off to get your finisher’s shirt (now available on ReRun) and to sign their great big Tor sign. More photos, even more gormless than before.
I sat in a corner. Someone brought me a beer. I drank it very quickly and my mood drastically improved.