Cobblestones, Cols and Cowbells - Page 4
Most Americans who visit the trails of Europe limp home with horror stories of merciless descents. The 50-degree steepness combined with up to 5000 feet of vertical loss tells only part of the story. The other part is that Europeans typically take the most direct route down the mountain, even if it makes the footing uncertain or involves cutting switchbacks.
Before the race, Haston provided a wry warning about course cutting, saying that nearly every runner does it. “Europeans have a different approach to the rules,” he says. “Here in Italy, people won’t even stop at red lights. They only stop if there’s a policeman there.”
Aichinger introduces me to this quirk of European trail running right away. As the trail cuts widely in one direction, he heads straight down to the next switchback, eliminating a tenth of a mile. I follow him for the next two miles (two and quarter by actual trail) and, as we stop at the Youlaz Aid Station, my quads remind me that I did not train to run such severely pitched downhills—some of which lose 2500 vertical feet in one mile.
All around, exposed rock and scrubby vegetation give the sense of being over 10,000 feet, if we were in Colorado. The Tor, however, peaks out above that altitude for fewer than three miles. In Europe, the alpine zone—the area situated above treeline—is only about 6000 feet. Here, short grass, small plants and alpine flowers dot the landscape, providing runners an unhindered view of glaciated peaks.
NOODLES WITHOUT EQUAL
As I near the end of the race’s first 50K, I find myself on a long, meandering spaghetti strand of trail on a verdant valley bottom. This is the Tor’s first prolonged, flat stretch, and I savor it.
hear more cowbells, and these are the real thing—half-gallon clunkers hanging from the necks of enormous dairy cows. I run because I can. The downhills have reduced me to a careful stutter step and the uphills have put sandbags around my ankles.
From a clearing, I see two long rows of ancient stone walls between which I’ll run. Beyond that, an inflated arch signals the conclusion of the Tor’s first segment, and my arrival at Valgrisenche, a sleepy alpine village populated by 195 people, all of whom could be florists, judging by the overflowing window-boxes adorning every window. The dimming, cloudy sky tells me that it is some time after 7 p.m. I marvel at how long it has taken me to cover 31 miles—over nine hours. Later, I learn that I was running in the top 20; some runners would be arriving here after Monday’s sunrise, 21 hours into the race.
I walk into a large banquet tent, the race’s first “Life Station,” and announce my number. One volunteer fetches my drop bag while another offers me food. “Vegetariano,” I say (Italians enjoy putting meat in everything), and I sit at a wooden table sturdy enough to host a Thanksgiving dinner.