Cobblestones, Cols and Cowbells - Page 8
An elderly woman wears a light blue dress that is tattered at the edges. She walks the town street and holds a shovel spade. “Buongiorno,” I say. She cheers for me until I say, “No competitivo.”
Confused, she points at the snaggle-toothed horizon, “Col Malatra?” Col Malatra is the final climb of the Tor. As a grand finale, runners must climb 4600 vertical feet.
“Si,” I reply.
“Mamma Mia!” she exclaims.
After a fairly gentle three-hour climb past unyielding cows, rock-framed stables and jabbering brooks, the col’s headwall appears. With every two strides up on the scree-littered slopes, I slide one step down. Near the top, the terrain steepens. Iron steps and handrails are bolted into the rock. Finally, I crest the Col Malatra through a three-foot wide rock notch and am greeted with a view of Mont Blanc, previously obstructed by a sheer barricade of mountain peaks.
Predictably, the subsequent downhill through a meadow and along a snaking creek lasts hours. A rolling trail takes runners across a north-facing slope that overlooks Mont Blanc. Torrents of glacial melt stream from it.
My still-tired legs bring me to the Bertone Rifugio, which is the race’s final aid station. From here, the course plunges 2100 feet over two miles. Runners limp downhill like hunchbacks—and these are still the front runners. One is escorted by a young girl and, with only one mile to go, he must stop and rest. The girl crouches down, trying to coax him onward. “You are so close,” she seems to say. She kisses both his knees before he rises to continue.
These runners are still in the top 20 overall, but more than a full day behind the race’s first finisher, Marco Gazzola. Gazzola ran away with the race, crossing the finish line draped in a Swiss flag after only 75 hours. “My heart was crying because I was so happy that I won,” he says. The elation was short lived. Race organizers concluded that his 58-minute time over the race’s final 13 kilometers was too fast. After discussing the discrepancy with Gazzola, they discovered that he had accidentally cut the course.
Says Gazzola, “I was so excited from the race that I was not thinking right.” The next finisher, Jules Henry Gabioud, also from Switzerland, completed the course three hours later and was declared the winner. “He said, ‘You are the winner, not me,’” says Gazzola.
Still, somebody like Gazzola, who has every reason to sulk, reflected only on the beauty in these Alpine episodes. “On Monday night, at Reifugio Coda, the sun was going down, and I took a beer outside for the sunset,” he recalls. “I gave myself 20 minutes to enjoy it, because this is not only about the race.”