Cobblestones, Cols and Cowbells - Page 6
Far up the mountain, trail markers lead me to the front door of Chalet Epee, a hut with walls of jigsaw-puzzled stone. I pull open the heavy wood door and am greeted like a soldier returning from a tour of duty. Gathered around bottles of wine, non-runners clap. Other Tor runners huddle around a heater and I saunter to a wooden bar where a host offers me a list of things that I do not understand, until I hear her say, “Espresso?”
Moments later, I am sipping a delicious shot of high-octane jitter juice in the Italian Alps, still riding a wave of exhilaration.
BACK DOWN TO EARTH
I remain in high spirits all the way up the climb. On the opposite side, even the steep descent brings a sly chuckle—this race is not the sufferfest I had imagined. I ride this ecstasy into the night. In the valley, as I near the tiny town of Rhemes-Notre Dame, I glance at the jet-black silhouette of mountain behind me, darker even than the cloudy night sky. Lightning flickers over the col, and a parade of runners’ headlamps zigzag downward. I push on over the next climb, Col Entrelor (9850 feet), and my quads merely survive the downhill to the town of Eaux Rousse.
U.S.-based ultramarathoner and sage of the sport Gene Thibeault once penned the saying, “If you feel good during an ultra, don’t worry. You’ll get over it.” Words worth remembering, considering that Thibeault was involved in ultras since the late 70s. Predictably, at approximately 4 a.m., over 50 miles into the race, I collapse on a bench in a tent. Fatigue hits me like a falling piano. I am hungry but can’t eat. I am tired but don’t want to sleep. So, I stand and begin a trudge up the next climb.
I wish I had memorized the course profile. Had I known what awaited me, I might have rested more in Eaux Rousse. The 5380-foot climb up the Tor’s next pass, Col Loson, seems to have no end. I stagger upward, clawing for the top. The sky lightens enough to reveal several runners approaching from behind. I step off the trail to let them pass.
The trail turns a corner and I fully expect to reach the top. Instead, there is a new ridge, two miles and 1500 vertical feet ahead. The morning sun’s first rays tickle the tips of nearby peaks. Problem is, the Aosta Valley is waking up and I want nothing more than to lie down.
Up ahead, another runner is completely horizontal on a rock. I compromise and sit gazing down on a narrow gulley littered with boulders. Motion catches my eye and I look more closely to notice three ibex, about the size of white-tailed deer, but more rotund. They bow their curved antlers toward me as they resume their scrub-grass breakfasts. An hour later, I reach the Col Loson, and summon my legs for yet another descent.
A waterfall leads all the way down to the next valley floor. My feet shuffle onward. I am exhausted and sore. By the time I arrive at the Cogne aid station, 63 miles and 25 hours into the race, I have surpassed my pain threshold. I resolve to enjoy the rest of the Tor des Géants as a spectator. That is, I drop.
After my identification bracelet is cut, I retire to a quiet gymnasium, where several other runners play the part of corpses, lying motionless on cots. I am asleep before my eyes close.
After a dreamless nap, I join a group of other DNFed runners in a shuttle van headed back to Courmayeur. Few words are spoken; most of us stare blankly out the window.