TOR DES GÉANTS 2017 – The days of Giants!

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Photo by Rebecca Glarey of the Val Ferret near Courmayeur


My love affair with the Tor started almost 7 years ago when I read studies about the race and the whole ambience of the race. At that time I never would have thought it would culminate into me running it one day more like a thing to aspire to for a young ultra runner as it felt so out there. Last year I came close to applying but told myself that if I didn’t get into UTMB that I would apply but luckily I did get into it and hence had an another year of racing experience under my belt before tackling this beast. For the uninitiated the Tor des Géants which translates to Tour of Giants is a 338 km race which circumnavigates the Aosta valley crossing 25 summits and with views of the Giants of the alps including Matterhorn, Monte Rosa, Gran Paradiso and Mont Blanc. While the advertised distance was 330km with 24,000m, our GPS logs recorded close to 348 km and 31,000m of ascent as the latter was most likely the measure of the climbs without including the little peaks we summit before the main Col’s and the many changes to the route over the years. This was essentially like climbing three Everests while running a 200 mile race with very little sleep! I’ve always felt comfortable being in the mountains for extended periods and have felt at home no matter what the weather conditions were and this was essential for a long race like the Tor.

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Not too long ago I would joke to friends saying the TOR was something I would do during my midlife crisis but at 26 I felt the time was right as I believed I could handle it and with some coaxing by friends who felt I had the mental maturity to deal with the variables during the race, I put my name in the hat and being the first Indian to ever apply I didn’t have to go through a lottery and got a straight yes. Having friends who’ve done it before helped massively as everyone chipped in with gear advice and on how to pace it. One of them told me “it takes a hardened steel mind to perform such tests, you can’t have the slightest flaw as the Tor will brutally expose them”. Another said “this course, while finish-able, is still damn tough. It’s probably going to push you to a place you’ve never been. You might quit. You might beat yourself up. You might beat me up. You might grow from it. Alternatively, you might stick it out and discover just how tough you are” I was prepared to find that out! Going to the States in June for a friends wedding meant that I got to spend time with Dima Feinhaus (3 times TOR finisher and 5 PTL’s in other words a legend!) and his advice made a massive difference to my approach to the Tor. My training was mostly done in the South Indian hills  during the weekends (around 2000-2500m altitude) with a month in the States running in the East coast including running the Old Dominion 100 miler (160 km/4500m) which was my only lead up race and a week in the Himalayas with Kieren D’souza helped with acclimatization before flying out. Training had gone well throughout the summer and I was at a point where it felt less like training and more like I enjoyed those days out in the mountains separately without it feeling like hard work. There was never a moment where it felt forced or like a chore like in previous years, I felt this is what others have been talking about that you need to take pleasure in the training especially when putting in the volume for something like this. You can’t do a race like the Tor des Géants if you don’t really enjoy running in the mountains simply for what it is but it takes years if not decades for this mindset to develop and having that deep ultra running experience is vital.

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I flew out a little early to catch up with friends and holidayed in Spain and eventually ended up at the UTMB week in Chamonix, working with iRunfar was a blast covering both the CCC and the UTMB. Having run the UTMB the past two years it was good to see the other side of things again and be in the midst of the excitement. With a cold snap happening this year and standing out for extended periods in the rain and cold winds meant that I caught a nasty flu a week before the Tor. I spent the whole week in bed trying to recover from it as it was pretty heavy and caused headaches from a blocked sinus. I did briefly think about not starting as it was pretty bad but the lure of racing the Tor meant that despite not feeling that great I decided to start.

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With the iconic yellow drop bag for the Tor!

I took the bus to Courmayeur the day before and quickly got checked in meeting Rebecca Glarey and her mum at the expo, a fellow WAA expert from the region who was so warm and welcoming as she has been telling me since last year that I should try the Tor! We had a long pre-race dinner where I caught up with Guillaume Arthus and his friends Magali and Bertrand. I was still feeling a little tired and couldn’t shake off the constant headache almost like a migraine but tried to remain calm as it was long race and things could potentially clear up or become worse. I was prepared to find out and hoped for the best! After sorting my kit out and filling out the iconic yellow bag I slept quite late and woke up nice and early. Had a sumptuous breakfast with an amazing Italian cappuccino before heading to the start as late as possible. The start was delayed due to them checking our GPS devices and doing spot checks, that Italian stereotype of things never being on time was true in this case. I was asked to show my crampons and had to dig out all my gear as it was at the base of my pack and repacked it before joining the que. I still had the headache but told myself to take it one day at a time as it was such a long race and eventually everything else will start hurting too so this won’t seem so bad 😀

Start to Valgrisenche (50 km)

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Passing through the town during the first kilometer

After a 20 min delay we were pumped up and got going under clear skies while until a day earlier we were told to expect bad weather so we got a little lucky. The start was awesome as the whole town was out cheering and the electric atmosphere was a nice way to start such a long journey. With my blocked sinus I wanted to get up high in the hope that the heavy breathing will somehow clear it. We quickly got into a conga line at the base of the first climb, a 1300m ascent up to Col d’Arp. It was steep and I quickly got into a good rhythm, it was fairly uneventful apart from my headache. There was some heavy traffic at the base but things quickly got moving once we climbed a little higher. I saw Natalie and Robbie cheering everyone on in middle of the climb and close to the summit I bumped into Mike Hensen and Vicki Romanin from America and Canada. I got chatting to them while slowly making the ascent up to the Col. We hit the summit and got a really nice runnable downhill with a small checkpoint to fill our bottles. It was a nice way to start the Tor and I got chatting to another Italian about how this promises to be a beautiful adventure!

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On the descent from Col D’Arp!

 

The descent was hard on the legs as we descended 1100m to hit the town of La Thuile, I saw a few senators here (one’s who have finished every edition of the Tor). I felt I had a comfortable pace and could sustain this without too much muscle damage. I spotted JeePee and his wife Natsuko. After a quick word with them I started the climb out to Passo Alto, the second climb in the Tor and it was another 1400m ascent! This climb felt steeper and shorter than the previous climb, I followed a few people and had some good support here with people cheering us “In bocca al lupo” which translates to “into the mouth of the wolf” but it means ‘good luck’ and the response would be “creppi al lupo” which means “death to the wolf” which an Italian runner was explaining to me. This indeed felt like going into the mouth of the wolf haha. As we gained altitude the views were wild and spectacular, despite the headache and being in a little pain I could still appreciate the beauty and how wild the course was, eventually we could see a glacier in the background as we approached Refugio Deffeyes. I kept bumping into Magali and Bertrand from here on until several points which was always encouraging and positive to see known faces. It was very windy here and they had a drone filming us which was pretty cool, after eating and filling up bottles I put my jacket on and started the climb up to Passo Alto. This section was very exposed and stunning, we were in the alpine zone and it got technical with rocks and boulders. A sign of things to come at the Tor as it was no “easy” hiking trail. After a steep and switch back filled climb up we had a very steep descent into Promoud CP which was between both the climbs. A volunteer here asked me to put on my waterproof pants or tights as I was in shorts and light was starting to fade. He warned us the wind was biting cold up at Col Crosatie (2829m). I ate some solid food and changed my gear for the first night. Once I wore my headlamp the headache got worse as the sinus was being pressed against but it was just another thing to deal with and I started the climb. The whole ascent looked very steep from the checkpoint and I wasn’t wrong it was super steep which made progress slow. Bumped into Aleksis here who was sitting on a rock suffering from the altitude, he was the first Phillipino runner to do the Tor and I offered some encouragement before making the climb. Light started to fade here as we climbed to the summit. We had cool pyramid like markers at each summit with the name of the Col which was really cool. The descent to Planaval was steep in the beginning before getting a little more gradual and runnable. I was cautious not to trash my quads so early on in the race and was trying to take it easy, the descent kinda reminded me of the long descent on the UTMB to les chapieux and the volunteers at planaval were so enthusiastic. One of them joked  “Is the Tor harder than you thought? The tough parts haven’t begun yet!” I joked saying this is exactly what I signed up for…still no regrets! We had some shorter climbs before making our way to the first life base at valgrisenche. We got our yellow bag handed here which gets transported to each life base which were bigger checkpoints every 50 km and they had hot food, massages, medical attention, showers and beds. I had some hot pasta here and slept for 30 mins or rather closed my eyes as I couldn’t sleep before heading out for the next section which on paper looked pretty savage with three climbs close to 3000m altitude and the last one almost being a 1700m ascent to the highest point in the race, Col Losson at 3300m.

Valgrisenche (50km) to Cogne (106km)

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I was a little tired here and probably should have rested more but kept going as my legs were still fresh, I made the long ascent up to Chalet de l’Epee and took a short break there while it was packed with people taking naps so had some coffee and started the final pitch up to Col Fenêtre which was super steep at the top just before sunrise and made a slow and cautious descent as it was crazy steep and a little slippery, after eventually hitting Rhémes notre Dame where I could eat some solid food and soup before climbing out to Col Entrelor, by now my headache seemed to have gone and I was starting to enjoy the Tor, the climb was long and went from a beautiful tree covered forest into the rocky alpine zone which got technical and steep near the summit. I felt the altitude at 3000m but made steady progress to the summit before a long descent into Eaux Rousses at approximately 81 km in, I stocked up on food and ate more while it was pretty hot here during noon. Some of the runners crew met them at this point so it had good support and they had some lovely pasta which went down a treat. The next climb started out with a steep climb in a forest which seemed gradual before getting into a remote valley and then we later started climbing some smaller climbs which kept coming one after the other before we could eventually see the final piece which kind of put some people off as they made their way back to the previous CP. I took breaks and made slow but steady progress up here and it got steeper and rocky near the summit as we snaked our way up to Col Losson at 3300m which was the highest point in the Tor and I could feel the altitude near the summit.

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At the first life base

This climb was mentally pretty hard as I’ve never done a single piece climb like that in a race but this was the one of the toughest mountain races in the world and it was starting to live up to its billing! To describe that in one word would be SAVAGE. They had a small cubicle after the summit for mountain rescue before the long and steep descent into Refugio Sella, by now light was fading and the Refugio was warm and welcoming. I ate here and restocked on supplies and a lovely volunteer took care of me. Another runner was planning to give up here and I tried to coax her to eat but to no avail, she said “this is not my idea of enjoyment, sorry but I can’t do this for another 4 days!” Which was a shame as she did well to get until here. The first 100 km of the Tor were almost like a litmus test as it was tough and in a way they separated the men from the boys and it was so easy to get deflated or overwhelmed with everything, all the climbs were savage and it just kept getting harder and harder but you had to keep the faith if we wanted to progress. After a long descent we hit the second life base at Cogne, I started my routine of eating a pasta meal before sleeping but there was a wait for beds so decided to take a massage here after all the beating my legs have gone through and then slept for a couple of hours here, longer than I expected but it was sorely needed after that last stage just to mentally reset things. I changed gear and wore 3/4th tights as the wind chill was cold during day time and worse during the night, I had another pasta meal before setting off from Cogne. The next section promised to be a little more forgiving with less climbing and lots of descending.

Cogne (106km to Donnas 151 km)

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I bumped into a French runner and a Japanese runner named Akira as we got chatting about races in Asia and the famous UTMF. It was in the wee hours of the morning and once we got out of town we started climbing at our own paces, we were all a little sleepy and some stopped to take naps inside the forest as we were still under tree cover. This was a common occurrence while I limited my sleep stops to the checkpoints and rarely ventured to sleep outside as the core temperature plummets if you’re not moving and decided against carrying a puffy jacket at least in the first few stages while I was still moving well. We summited several small peaks and the approach kept going on forever especially in the night, I could see the surrounding peaks were covered in snow and it felt very exposed in the alpine zone. After an eternity I finally could see Refugio Sogno in the distance, the Refugio was filled with people taking naps everywhere including the floor. I sat and had some hot soup while answering questions about my ethnicity to the staff there who were intrigued to see an Indian Géant but I loved the attention 😀 As I exited the checkpoint to start the climb up to the snow covered Fenêtre di champorcher I was greeted by fellow WAA expert Yvonne from Germany, after a little chat she passed me as it was so cold up there. The entire climb was steep and slow going, as day light was upon us now it felt like a scene from Game of thrones beyond the wall, only the white walkers were missing and I wasn’t hallucinating yet but it did feel very eerie as we got higher it started to snow a little. We slowly snaked our way to hit Fenêtre di Champorcher and then started the long descent into Donnas, the top part was very exposed and windy but the views were stunning. This was an easy place to trash your quads before even getting half way so I ran it in a very measured way without accelerating too much. Kept bumping into a few people here as we hit Refugio Dondena where the volunteers were lovely and we had to sign the poster which was another cool aspect of the Tor where they really treat us like a giant. I had a pasta meal to get some food in for the long descent. I slowly made my way to Chardonney, it was very hot as we were losing altitude and heading to the lowest point in the course which was Donnas at 330m. While staying above 2000m meant that we had a cool breeze, going lower meant that it got hotter but I was making steady progress. I remember meeting a Mexican runner called Noé at Chardonney and he was the first from his country too so we had a lot of countries being represented for the first time at the Tor. The descent was long and it was frustrating not being able to run it at full gas but I knew my patience would be rewarded as it was too early to do anything stupid. We eventually hit Pont-bosset and Bertrand and Magali caught up to me so I ran a little with them. At this CP I sat down to eat and chat with another Italian runner as he explained the next few sections, while I made a mental note of the sections it was simply too long to remember everything so I took it from section to section which made it mentally easier and being a little naive kinda helped. From Pontboset it was a fairly short descent into Donnas but what was frustrating was the little hills we had to climb before entering town and then we had to walk all the way across the town and into some random side roads before eventually hitting the life base, we did get to run through some old Roman roads here. I remember we joked that you can never put your poles away just because we hit the town. This was a theme as many other CP’s were placed in such a manner that you had to go through the entire town before getting to the CP. Donnas was hot at around 30 degrees and I was sweating a lot by the time I got into the CP. They had some amazing pasta which became my staple before sleeping for an hour here, I knew I had to sleep a little before the biggest climb in the race. A 2000m single piece climb up to Refugio Coda which was the half way point of the Tor. Donnas was very pretty with vineyards and warm weather and since it was on the edge of the alps and closer to the flatlands it had a different vibe. After my snooze I used the loo and bumped into a few runners who were having a big debate about how hard the next section was outside the toilet. I listened to them but didn’t pay much attention as so far EVERYTHING has been bloody hard and way outside my comfort zone so kinda slowly came to accept that it was never going to get any easier. I shattered my phone screen as I dropped it by mistake here and felt like just another thing going wrong but glad it didn’t break completely! I knew this next section would take some time but I was prepared mentally to grind it out just as light was starting to fade.

Donnas 151km to Gressoney (206km)

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At the Donnas life base

I had another meal before heading out as the que for the massage was too long, did meet fellow WAA expert Yvonne here as we exchanged a few pleasantries and joked about how hard its been so far. I was a little emotional here as I saw lots of people dropping and with bad injuries but felt I didn’t get this far only to drop at half way. Mentally it was important for me to get out of this CP as there was a temptation to drop. I was a little tired and sore but decided to get a move on and started walking out of town, the support at the Tor is incredible with the locals cheering you on as they pass you by and also cars honking and cheering us on. It was very special as we had a little stop which was manned by locals with a guy dressed as the devil chasing us before we started the climb out of town. As daylight was starting to get lower I put my headlamp here and my jacket on as it was windy, the ascent out of town was very steep and was amongst vineyards which was really beautiful and I started overheating inside tree cover so took my jacket off and kept a steady rhythm. The first section was super steep interspersed with road sections before we dropped into Perloz, I arrived here around dinner time and they had a massive party going on with live music, it was incredible to watch as the locals were all there and they adored us. All the things in the aid station was sourced locally with home made cakes and even the soda was made in perloz. It was a special moment and I spent a few minutes eating a type of sweet Pretzel before heading out for the long ascent to Coda. This checkpoint is famous at the Tor for the ambience and it sure lived up to it, some people felt that they were hallucinating as the support was unreal. It immediately got steep as we started going up steps and it was never ending, I tried not to stop too much and just kept climbing. Somewhere before Sassa I saw a Chinese runner wrapped up in an emergency blanket and was helped by the local rescue, it was reassuring to know that while we were still in a wild place we had support not too far away, I later learned that he was okay and was only taking a nap which set alarm bells ringing as he had his foil blanket out. After a long and very steep climb to Refugio Sassa I took a short break here getting some calories in and putting on some layers before going up to the alpine zone. I tried to sleep here but the beds were full and there was a wait so decided to do the  entire ascent and sleep at Refugio Coda. The climb was just unrelenting and steep with thoughts of Col Losson I made steady progress. I remember stopping and doing the Nick Hollon test of checking my lucidity and sanity with asking myself basic questions like who I was and where I was headed. I was doing well for awhile and this kept me from going into zombie mode as it was pretty late into the night. After awhile I could see the silhouette of the mountains against the moon and felt like there was no way I could haul my sorry ass up there but then realized this was the longest climb in the race and would go someway into eating up that 31000m of ascent. At some point I was so out of it that the conversation in my head went something like this, “what am I?” “Random weirdo trying to stay alive” “Where am I headed?” “To the moon!”. That’s when I realized that I really need to sleep as this race was starting to mess with my head. I started following a couple of runners all the way up to the summit and the view up there just blew my mind despite it being crazy windy and we were literally on a ridge!. I could see the outer edge of the alps with the flatlands not so far and this was pretty cool. I could see the lights of Refugio Coda in the distance and we made our traverse slowly and carefully as there was a 2000m drop either side of us on this stunning ridge. After eventually hitting Coda, I had some hot soup to warm myself up and bumped into Mike and Vicki. We decided to nap here for an hour which I’d dreamed about all night! That 1 hour felt like less than 5 minutes as I was so exhausted from that climb.

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Descending down one of the Col’s along with Mike!

I tried to eat more and spent sometime here trying to regroup, this was also the official halfway point of the Tor and shit was about to get real! So far I’ve been getting my ass handed to me on a plate and I kinda accepted that this sequence would continue but physically I felt okay as my stomach was still playing ball and my mobility was still good. I got out of there feeling pretty good and started running the technical descent passing people, I was making great progress in this section for a couple of hours. Bumped into Paolo Girolami another Italian runner based in Ireland, we got chatting about the race. I felt good for a couple of hours and somewhere before Refugio Balma I was starting to feel exhausted and weak. I thought it might go away if I ate enough at the Refugio which was surrounded by a beautiful lake. I ate some pasta and snacks before the next section. I was starting to feel weaker on the climbs as it felt like I was running out of gas while still being physically okay. I was being passed by people here on the approach to Col du Marmontana which was short but crazy steep, I had to sit down at some points just to recover and was really feeling the effort AKA I was haulin’ ass here. This feeling never changed at the following checkpoints, I just felt flat and demoralized. Doubts started to creep in if I could finish this monster of a race but I believed that this too shall pass and it was just a “low” moment which was just lasting longer than expected. But as the kilometers went by slowly and even running downhill felt hard after cresting Coll della Vechia. The long descent into Niel was my lowest point in the race and I was getting emotional and contemplating the prospect of not finishing the TOR this year. This kinda transpired into me getting into a big hole and physically too I was getting weaker and moving slower. This is where experience kicked in, I was starting to think like a lawyer and trying to fix this problem. The issue was that whatever I ate I wasn’t digesting it and I was running on reserve all day which explained why I felt like shite. I did eventually get to Niel with a plan to drop but the support was incredible, I was literally crawling up the steps to the Refugio where they were ringing half a dozen cowbells to welcome me and people were sat there picnicking, this was also a CP where crews were allowed so had a great ambience. I remember thinking about going straight to one of the volunteers and telling them I was ready to call it a day, I am many things but what I am not is a quitter especially not at the Tor des Géants my dream race which was slowly turning into an endless nightmare, it was still insanely pretty no matter how much it hurt! I remember sitting in the toilet trying to mentally get back into it. I threw up and tried to reset my stomach and had two meals as they had pasta aswell as polenta which was amazing and the volunteers were fab! The owner of the Refugio was taking pictures of me as they were thrilled to see an Indian, they had many Nepalese employees who were all so excited to see me and kept saying “Namasté!”, they were so warm and welcoming. After having two cups of coffee I remember sitting there with Yvonne talking about how hard this thing was as she was feeling awful too. This was the turning point in the race for me which really tested my mental strength, I felt like I just had to get out there as I didn’t have the face to quit at Niel especially to those lovely aid station people and also on my dream. I sure did want to quit but just didn’t know how? I told myself that there’s no way I’m dropping, if I drop it’ll be due to not meeting the cut-off not voluntarily dropping at an aid station so decided to take a 10 minute nap and I barely slept as all these thoughts were going through my mind. I did eventually get out of there to do the climb to Col Lasoney and was moving a little gingerly in the beginning but decided if I’m dropping out at Gressoney Seant-Jean (next life base) it’ll be with a bang and started to push it a little and started catching people, I also wanted to see my friend Peter who was starting the Tot Dret which started from the next life base. My stomach started working again and all that polenta was starting to kick in as I powered up that climb, I was back to full strength and there was life in my legs again and I remember singing while doing that climb much to the amusement of my fellow runners. I caught up to Mike who was facing physical issues and we chatted about how we’re each dealing with it, once we got close to the summit of Col Lasoney it got really windy and the temperatures started to drop as the the sun was setting soon. We put our jackets on to cut the wind out and started running down. We were passed by a few people and didn’t mind running a little slower as we knew we had a long descent into gressoney. Soon we hit a refugio and sat inside in the warmth for a few minutes while we put some layers on. They had hot soup with some pasta in it so we ate that and left in a few minutes. They had posters of Pierra menta on their wall and that was pretty cool. We decided to run together and were joined by Amy Costa from Florida on the descent along with Leanne Rive, essentially we got to know all the English speakers by now so we checked on each other. Mike gave his hand torch to her as she was having trouble seeing things in the fog with her headlamp. It got a little foggy as we started the descent inside a forest. I was excited to reach Gressoney and thought I could possibly meet Peter before his race started at 9 pm, the sister race called Tot Dret with 130 km/12000m following the last leg of the Tor. The descent was rocky and technical in sections so Mike was having trouble as he had injured his shin, I was happy to run behind him trying to not trash my quads on this descent. After awhile we eventually hit a town and then started the slow short climb up to Gressoney, it was dark by now and we made our way to the big sports complex around 9.15 pm which was too late to meet Peter but I heard it was good that we got here now as we avoided the crowds. I immediately went in and ate a little before heading straight to bed as I was feeling really sleepy. I slept for an hour before coming out and changing some of my gear and ate some hot food, they had more variety here with different pastas, fruit salad etc so it was a welcome change. I bumped into Mike again and we geared up for the night before downing a cappuccino and heading out. His friend Troy had flown over that day from the States and met him here for the first time to crew for him. While quite a few of the runners had crews I decided to be autonomous and didn’t want someone to spend an entire week following me around, apart from my first 100 miler I’ve never had a crew, only had Katie supporting me on my first UTMB but I’ve generally felt comfortable enough to go without a crew especially with the yellow bags being transported to the next life base (every 50 km) made things easier as I had all my back up gear and nutrition to access at least once a day. It also felt like too much to ask for!         

Gressoney (206km) to Valtournenche (239 km)

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Leaving Gressoney all chirpy and ready to tackle the next section!

On paper this seemed like the shortest leg between life bases but I knew by now we were tired, moving slowly and nothing at the TOR was easy. We were usually given updates on the weather at every life base so we can be better prepared in terms of what gear to carry and I had some mountaineering gear too incase the weather got really bad which can happen during the last few days of the Tor as the seasons change and also your body’s thermoregulation shuts down so you start to feel cold all the time even during the day. Once we got out of the checkpoint it was fairly flat for a few kilometres as we got chatting and Mike was talking about his coach Karl Meltzer’s Appalachian trail FKT. I was intrigued and this kept us going before we eventually hit the base of the climb. It was really steep and unrelenting in the beginning as we took breaks to navigate our way. Caught up with lots of people here and it was tough going but eventually hit Refugio Alpenzu quickly as we sat down here for some food and coffee. I was feeling relatively fresh and was chatting to other runners. One Italian was talking about his trip to the Himalayas and said he’d love to go back soon, it reminded me of my own trip to Manali to train at altitude just before heading to the TOR. We had a couple of coffees before starting the climb up Col Pinter. I met a runner from London here and he was totally out of it due to lack of sleep but kept going which was impressive. The lovely volunteers at the aid were talking about how frenetic the start of the Tor dret was and how there will likely be congestion of the trails in the beginning and that we timed it well with a rest break at Gressoney.

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We made our way up the ascent of Col Pinter and it started to get very foggy in this section but the trail was really nice even though it was at night and we bumped into a few ponies and horses (totally real ones not another hallucination!). After an hour on the way up we started getting tired and it got very steep near the top with -6 windchill so it was tough going. I wasn’t wearing nearly enough gear as I should have so decided to push a little to hit the summit and run down the descent. I thought Mike would catch up as I wanted to nap at the next Refugio as we were deep into sleep deprivation at this point. The descent was quite fun as my quads were still okay to run down without any issues so ran most of it while passing people as it was very windy here. I eventually hit Refugio Cuneaz and went straight to bed as I was starting to fall asleep on my feet. The warm volunteers there ushered me into their bunk beds which were for people who were actually staying the night there. I overslept here as I forgot to keep my alarm and slept for a couple of hours but felt really refreshed when I woke up. I went upstairs to find Mike sleeping on the table, we had a nice pasta soup before heading out. We both really needed that sleep to get our bearings right. It was mostly all downhill in this section to Champoluc and the trail was quite soft lined with trees so was nice to run down. We had a short break at champoluc were we ate more before heading out for a 1200m ascent upto Col di nana. By this point I wasn’t surprised by the steepness or the size of the climbs as we slowly got on with it but this section was quite pretty and remote. We mostly chatted away while moving quite well as it was morning by now. I remember chatting about how I was running the diagonal des four after this and joked that I would do well to run at all this year after the TOR let alone do another 100 miler. The climb was quite gradual in the beginning going through tree cover before hitting a very exposed and windy section in between mountains. It was beautiful but the weather was turning and there were grey clouds everywhere, eventually we had a wee drizzle. The climb up to Rifugio Grand tourmaline was quite steep with lots of switch backs but we were bunched up with lots of runners in this section which was great for morale. At the rifugio they had a bunch of cow bells lined up outside and everyone was ringing it before going in which could be heard by everyone below doing the climb á la Tour de France style. I can’t stop gushing about how amazing all the volunteers were at EVERY checkpoint but the people were just brilliant as they offered up some tasty pasta, fresh cut fruits and really strong cappuccino’s. After restoring our energy we enjoyed the ascent up Col di Nana which looked quite spectacular as it had a long gradual climb near the summit which can be seen from quite a distance. We had to stay high for quite a bit in this section but it was fun and we both were joking around and enjoying ourselves. There were some nice views while we were above the clouds, the descent seemed to go on forever and I remember joking that it surely was way more than they mentioned as it felt like we had been descending forever. The rain was quite heavy near the valley but we eventually made it to valtournenche where we were greeted by Mike’s wife and Troy who were waiting for us. They were fab as they filled out my bottles and restocked my supplies, after eating a little we decided to take a one hour nap here before starting the climb up to Fenêtre du Tsan, my friends who ran the Tor before warned me about this section as it was notoriously difficult and at this stage it will be a big test of patience and perseverance. I realized here about the importance of having a crew at a race like the Tor des Géants, just having a known face or a loved one at the life base meant a great deal as it rejuvenates the soul after the body takes a battering out in the mountains.

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Arriving at Valtourneche life base

Valtourneche (239 km) to Ollomont (287km)

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I made the mistake of taking away some of my warm gear and putting it away. After a short break we started our climb out of valtournenche just as it stopped raining. I remember changing my socks here and they were bloody thanks to my heels cracking up, I taped them up with KT tape and it seemed to help as until then I was wincing a little on the descents, not that EVERYTHING else wasn’t also hurting by this point. We chatted away on the ascent up to Rifugio barmasse and by the time we hit the rifugio it was crazy windy and we put on all our gear here before heading up to Fenêtre du Tsan. The initial climb up was very steep but we were making slow progress but progress nonetheless, bumped into a Catalan runner here who spoke very little English but we somehow were making conversation about the Catalan independence while climbing up, just as the sun was setting we could see a stunning view of the Matterhorn, it looked spectacular in the alpine glow! The rest of the climb up to Fenêtre du Tsan was extremely windy and savage, we hit a small checkpoint in the hills where we bumped into Vicki Romainin, she said she didn’t want to stop and kept moving. I suffered in this section with the wind and my lack of proper mountaineering gear as the lightweight ultra running gear just wasn’t cutting it, this meant I had to keep moving well for my own safety which was a scary at that moment as the conditions were hairy with wind which seemed like it could literally blow us away. I broke away from the group here and made a push for the summit which seemed like a sensible thing to do for my sleep deprived mind as I didn’t want to hang about in those conditions, after what seemed like an absolutely eternity we hit Fenêtre du Tsan and started the short and steep descent to Rif Magià, I couldn’t wait to get indoors and get some sleep, I’ve literally never felt that cold in my life and started running the entire way to the rifugio just to keep myself warm and I did contemplate quitting here as it it seemed a little too much at this point but made a good decision to sleep and refuel here before starting the climb out, I met up with Vicki and Mike here as we made the climb up to Rif Cunéy, this whole section it seemed okay on the profile was full of short and steep climbs and descents which was taking it out of us and with temperatures plummeting to -12 degrees it really felt like madness but somehow we kept going as you do, it was along this section that I realized what the Tor meant and why the people of Aosta are in awe of us and call us Géants, you had to go beyond a certain level and this night was the toughest of the entire Tor for me. Most people would never understand what it takes or what we were doing out there that night but it really felt like a full on battle against the elements. I vividly remember slipping on ice in this section and hurt my knee, it was a water stream across the trail which was frozen rock solid. I think we bought a pasta meal at Rifugio Cunéy as it was much needed to power us in this section and also to get more calories in to keep us warm. The rest of the section upto Bivouc Clermont was difficult combined with fatigue and sleep deprivation but it was the same for everyone, I was surrounded by people with a lot of experience and pedigree who were no strangers to these crazy mountain conditions and yet we were all struggling to keep it together, just to give you guys an idea there was a guy with 3 hard rock finishes, another with two 200 mile finishes in the States and another with an extensive mountain running resume. While it was reassuring to be surrounded by these people I probably had the least gear on me and I couldn’t wait for the next life base to come or for day light to warm us. After stumbling our way as the sun slowly started to rise we made it to Biv. Clermont. A tiny mountain hut literally in the middle of nowhere but it had tiny beds and small table with a volunteer making us hot pasta and tea/coffee. It felt like an oasis after being butchered by the wind all night. The short climb up Col Sessonaz was quite nice and it was a long descent to Oyace and we wanted to make up time as we lost a lot of time sleeping and recouping our energy, there were doubts creeping in if we could make the cut-off at Oyace or Ollomont life base so were pushing it a little on this descent.  It was a rather long descent and Mike was having some issues with his ankle so he was starting to move very gingerly as he kept rolling them. We eventually made it into Oyace to be greeted by both Vicki’s family and Mike’s family which was awesome after last night. We had some food and restocked supplies before climbing up to Col Brison, our aim was to make it Ollomont with a sufficient buffer so we could rest before the final piece of the race. I lead the climb for most of the way zoning out with my headphones in, it was largely uneventful. The sun was quite warm here as it was midday and we made our way to the small makeshift checkpoint at half way. The last section of the climb was crazy steep something like 500m in a less than a kilometer so it was almost a crawl up that climb before a very steep and switch back filled descent initially before a long gradual descent on a jeep track to Ollomont. Almost everyone was running bits to make up time as we were only an hour before the cut-off at Ollomont but with more running we made it with time to spare. I ate and slept for an hour here and I remember an Italian lady came upto me and said that she said I had the best feet among everyone she saw at this stage into the race with zero blisters and offered to crew for me next time I do it. I was rather flattered but with my lack of fluency in Italian I thanked her and got on with my kit changing, I remember telling Troy at Oyace about how much I suffered the previous night and told him to pack my backpack with all the mountaineering gear for the last night.

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Ollomont (287km) to Courmayeur-dolonne finish (338km approx)

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We left ollomont in the evening around 6 pm and made our way up to Rif. Champillon, I remember sweating a lot initially but got into a decent rhythm once we got above the tree line. The climb was a little steep but gradual, eventually we hit Champillon and it was very windy here, the hot pasta helped as I put on every piece of gear I had to tackle the night. I remember the volunteers joking that I looked like I was going to climb Mont Blanc haha but I was toasty warm and that’s what really mattered! The climb up champillon was windy but quite short and the other side had no wind so eventually I took off a few layers as we made the descent and hit Ponteille depot where they had a bar-be-que going on and we begged the volunteers to let us sleep for a few minutes here. They kept refusing initially and saw us bundled at a corner of the small hut trying to snooze and felt sorry for us and made us make shift beds to let us rest for 10 mins, it was this kind of kindness that really touched us during the Tor. The human connection and the warmth of the people of the Aosta valley is what makes this race really something else. After a short nap we were fresh to make some progress, this section had the only flat/runnable section in the entire course so I made full use of it to run most of this bit to arrive in the wee hours of the morning at Saint-Rhémy en-Bosses were we had amazing pasta and got to sleep in a real castle, how cool is that! I slept for an hour here before starting the final climb upto Col Malatrà the final Col of the Tor and something I’ve been dreaming for days if not years leading up to this race. I was quite fresh from the nap and remember being quite cheerful in this section as I rubbed off some of that positivity on other runners who were quite battered by the experience. I ran into an Italian lady who said she couldn’t wait to finish as she didn’t expect this level of suffering and the awful things the lack of sleep can do to your body but I was trying to make her see the positive side. She was one climb away from doing one of, if not THE toughest mountain race on the planet and while the suffering is temporary she will be a Giant for the rest of her life and inspire countless others. She teared up a little and said “it’s meeting people like you that make this experience worth it!”.

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At Saint-Rhemy en bosses CP in the middle of the night ready to tackle the final Col!

As we ascended it seemed like it went on forever and we thought Merdeux was an aid station before apparently it was only a time barrier. It got super steep and windy after Merdeux as we were in the alpine zone and we had snow/frost everywhere. After a laborious and crazy steep climb we could eventually see Rif Frassati as it was quite hidden and very high. It was covered in snow and that section felt really hard both physically and mentally as we were so tired already, they had a quote written on the snow outside the Rifugio which translated to “If you do not suffer, it is not the Tor!”. Quite apt as I wouldn’t argue that from everything else I’ve done it was by far a pinnacle of suffering but a glorious suffering which was totally worth it. We bought some pasta here and took a short nap as we knew we only had as short climb before a 30 km descent/traverse into Courmayeur. It was starting to feel real and we wanted to wait it out a little for the snow to thaw out as the sun was coming out. They advised us to put our crampons on and we started the chilly climb to Malatra, I was getting a little impatient and emotional at this point so made quick progress to the summit which is quite iconic as it offers a brilliant view of Mont Blanc. I didn’t expect to meet Lucio a mountain guide who worked at the PTL to be up here. He recognized me from the PTL party and gave his hand to lift me up as the last few steps were made of ropes and you had to scramble a little. He said “Ash, you are a géant now!”.

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Up Col Malatra, the final col of the Tor des Geants

While it was a realization of a childhood dream, it meant more coming from him. I stopped to take a few pictures before heading down, it was a rather long descent into the small cubicle checkpoint of Malatrà where I bumped into Yvonne and I had something to eat before making my way. I ran some bits and in my excitement followed the old route for quite abit only for some of the media and volunteers who were shouting from a distance and I realized that I was going the wrong way, what a disaster that would have been to get so close to the finish and get lost! I climbed the wee hill and started the big descent into Courmayeur with the sun shining. My stomach was feeling a little groggy from all the pasta I had so wanted to use the toilet but decided to wait until Bertone refuge. This section eventually joins with the TMB route which I’m very familiar having run UTMB twice and I’ve recced this route atleast a dozen times. The val ferret was probably my most favorite section of the UTMB course which offers stunning views of Mont Blanc. It was a lovely surprise to bump into Rebecca and her mum who were hiking in the opposite direction, they greeted me with warm hugs and said I looked really strong for someone who’s been running for 6 days! They later caught up to me near Bertone and it was really nice to have some company but I felt really weak and had very little energy to keep a conversation going as I focused on moving as efficiently as possible.

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Alot of emotions were going on in my mind as I was nearing the finish line, while I was looking forward to getting some proper rest and for this all to be over I also didn’t want this journey to end as it was so vivid and epic, just the scale of these mountains and the staggering ascent and descent we achieved put things into perspective. I loved most of that experience and at that moment felt like I would never want to do it again ever. I eventually reached Bertone and had some food here while being interviewed by the media as I was the first Indian to run this mythical race and everyone was quite excited to see me! After a short interview while stuffing my face with food I felt good enough to run all the way to the finish, I knew this descent as its the same one we climb up during l’UTMB. I remember Becca’s mum said that with the speed I’m moving I should make it to courmayeur rather swiftly! I started this descent with Yvonne who asked me to go ahead as I was in much better shape to “run” the descent, I took off and really enjoyed this section while reminding myself not to take any falls and break something.

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Photo by Rebecca Glarey

Everyone who were hiking up were clapping and cheering us on which was really cool, I made quick work of that descent and eventually hit the streets of courmayeur. We had a crazy welcome by all the folks cheering us on who were sitting at the cafe’s/pubs in the city centre and I hugged everyone I knew before making my way to the finish in a mammoth 147 hrs and 41 minutes. It was a emotional moment and I got interviewed at the finish line for being the first Indian and felt honored to talk about the good things in India. After finishing they took some of us to the stadium where I slept and then checked in to my room and crashed until the next day morning. I looked like a shadow of myself after losing 8 kgs and none of my clothes would fit but I knew I would put on the weight eventually but this was an experience of a life time.

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On top of Col Malatra being greeted by Lucio!
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Photo by Rebecca Glarey

We had an amazing awards ceremony as every runner was greeted with big cheers and I finally got my hands on that elusive finisher jacket. On that day I achieved a goal that I worked towards for 10 years – Finishing the Tor des Géants (205 miles/31000m). It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done and I gave it everything I had. I’ve never felt so cold with temperatures plummeting to -12 degrees and I was physically exhausted for months. I learned something about my own limits and my own path and mostly about my own motivation. I was lucky enough to share this journey with friends and I’m grateful for the memory that we can keep together. Today I am reflecting on what we gain and what we lose from pursuing these dreams, and I am making a commitment to do my best to keep it in balance and live with gratitude as my guide. 

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Giganti – Class of 2017

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Not seen in this picture: the years of training leading up to the TOR, the tears when I doubted that I would be healthy enough to start, the patience of my family, the tears of joy when I crossed that finish line. I just want to send one last thank you to those who made this dream a reality and brought this elusive jacket into my life. Looking at it now, as I did then for the first time, I still smile. I will always smile.

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Signing the poster at the finish line

To EVERYONE near and far who tracked me online and to those who helped me during the race, Thank you for your support it meant the world to me ❤ I’m honored and inspired in equal measure when people say that my harebrained pursuits inspire them.

WAA Ultra for believing in very stupid ideas and making phenomenal products designed for ultra running, like a shirt so functional I could carry most things to support said stupid ideas. They supplied most of the gear I needed to be safe and yet light enough to not hinder my progress.

Unived Sports for making clean vegan products which I could consume for 147 hours and still not feel nauseous and they changed my whole approach to nutrition by educating me on the benefits of eating clean and how that impacts recovery. I’m excited for all the new products they’re planning to release soon.

Salomon INDIA for providing me with shoes that were so comfy that I ran the whole 340-km journey in one pair. The S-lab wings 8 were perfect for the TOR. The fact that I’ve always used Salomon’s have meant that I had no blisters during the entire race, I even got lots of compliments on how good my feet looked!

Suunto India for equipping me with one of the best GPS watches out on the market, my first ever GPS watch was a Suunto and I’ve been very impressed with the new Suunto Spartan Ultra. I’m glad to be associated with a brand I believe in.

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3 thoughts on “TOR DES GÉANTS 2017 – The days of Giants!

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