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Cobblestones, Cols and Cowbells

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Italy’s 200-mile Tor des Géants is the world’s most difficult foot race. It will romance you with its views and quaintness before it takes out your knees. Could this be the best DNF you ever have?

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photos courtesy of the Tor des Géants

I had no illusions of finishing the Tor des Géants. The race, held in a remote cubby hole of the Italian Alps, represented a vacation as much as a chance to test my lungs, legs and heart against 200 miles of punishing climbs and painful descents. Still, the night before the race, as I stuffed my running pack with the race’s mandatory equipment, I pondered just how far I might make it.

“I’d like to cover an honest 100 miles,” I said to my wife, Holly.

“If you’re feeling good, keep going,” she said. With that nudge, I considered whether I could cover roughly the same distance as Boston to New York—if that route climbed over 78,000 vertical feet. That is more vertical gain than climbing Mount Everest, from sea level, twice.

The distance and the course’s vertical gain reveal only a small part of the story. In all, the Tor des Géants crosses 25 mountain passes (commonly called “cols” in Europe). Its trail rims at least 30 mountain lakes. It chaperones runners through 32 scenic alpine municipalities, the Gran Paradiso National Park and altitude fluctuations of an ear-popping 11,000 feet. It traverses the feet of four of Europe’s most famous “Four-Thousanders” (peaks over 4000 meters high), including the iconic Matterhorn.

The full distance, if I could miraculously run it, would be twice as far as I had ever run in one push. 150 hours—the time cut-off for the race—would take me from the race start at 10 a.m. on a Sunday morning to four p.m. the following Saturday.

I settled into bed with an odd sense of uncertainty.

MONARCH OF THE ALPS
More commonly known as “Mont Blanc,” 15,780-foot Monte Biancho rises dramatically at the northeastern corner of Italy like a trumpet blare at the end of a flute solo. It takes your breath away on first glance, and the second. Glaciers fill its couloirs, and cling impossibly to its steep walls.

At the foot of this natural wonder rests Italy’s least-populated region, the 1300-square-mile Valle d’Aosta. Only 129,000 people live here, a number likely dwarfed by the cows. One visit to the vacation hotspot reveals why: it is physically difficult to live on 40-degree slopes and perhaps mentally difficult to survive its box-canyon isolation. This is the arena for “Tour of the Giants.”

Upon learning of the Tor several months earlier, I half wondered if it was a joke. I could imagine The Onion running news of the race as a poke at our growing culture of “Look how extreme I am.” The race’s challenge was as ridiculous as a moon landing seemed in 1950.

The 332-kilometer counter-clockwise loop begins and ends in the hamlet of Courmayeur, and connects the famed Alta Via (“High Route”) 2 and Alta Via 1 hiking paths. The course is best summarized as “climb for two hours, descend for one hour, repeat.” Along the way, runners pass through 43 refreshment stations and life stations. The former provide minimal support in the form of soda, “agua” and food. There are seven of the latter, which provide all the replenishment of a fully stocked grocery store, plus tents for quick naps, showers and drop bags.

In the 2010 inaugural event, 330 runners seized the opportunity to visit this idyllic enclave. Stevie Haston, 54, from Courmayeur but raised in Wales, was one of last year’s competitors. “I am not a runner, but I’m tough,” he says.
Fifty-four percent of runners finished last year—including Haston.

CHURCH OF THE HOLY TRAIL
On a bluebird Sunday morning, September 11, I stand amongst 500 runners from 22 countries in a quaint piazza beside the Church of San Pantaleone. I overhear conversation snippets in German, French, one of the Nordic languages and a throaty tongue I cannot place. A film-crew helicopter hovers above the town square and just ahead, the walkway funnels into a curving, narrow pedestrian alley lined three deep with spectators.

“Tre … Due … Uno!” shouts the announcer. And we are off, running at a relaxed pace through a tunnel of noise—shouts and the clanging of cowbells bouncing from stone walls to window shutters. Shopkeepers stand along the walkway, some shouting, “Allez, allez, allez!”

A mile later, we funnel onto an ascending singletrack trail, beginning the first climb of the day, 4420 vertical feet to Col Arp.
The first climb of any race is filled with excitement, hope and overzealousness. The Tor des Géants, despite its epic scope, is no exception, as runners work to pass each other on a ribbon of singletrack switchbacks no wider than a medium pizza.

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I, on the other hand, try to ease into a steady uphill rhythm. A deserted shepherd’s stone hut is nestled among dense trees on our left. Two thousand feet above the valley floor, at a meadowed precipice from which I could imagine paragliders taking flight, we come upon a six-foot-tall cross, the first of countless others that we will encounter in this heavily Catholic region. Soon, to our right, nearly 50 horses graze, facing the glaciered torso of Mont Blanc.

Part of the Tor des Géants’ enchantment is that it doesn’t really feel like a race. In the early miles, the Sound-of-Music scenery and cobblestone charm of running in the Alps entrance runners into a numb perma-grin and, later, a benevolent stupor.

The pitch of the trail increases on the final approach to the col, a distant saddle between two soapy white granite faces. A runner says something in Italian and motions ahead with the tip of his trekking pole. I squint to make out the shapes of people awaiting us at the top. Soon, I hear them: the clang-clanging of a hundred cowbells, summoning us upward.

The Tor des Géants claims a Vangelis-esque orchestral as its unofficial anthem. It plays in the promotional videos and reverberates around Courmayeur as runners begin the race. For me, the official anthem is the joyous rhythm of cowbells. At the top of climbs, in valleys and approaching aid stations, their mystical jangle lifts my spirit and, sometimes, my legs.

SHORTCUTS THROUGH HEAVEN
“Hup, hup, hup!” shout the spectators at the top of Col Arp. I pause to savor the moment and point my toes downhill, following Dominik Aichinger, an Austrian ultrarunner with whom I was able to exercise some of my rusty German skills during the climb. “Wie geht’s? [How’s it going?]” I ask.

“Gut [Good],” he replies between deep breaths.

We crest the Col and absorb the sprawling view. “Unglaublich schon! [Unbelievable, beautiful!]” I shout out.

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.

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For an American trail runner the aid stations can be a culture shock. Earlier in the day, I discovered by accident that I must specify whether I want “agua” or “agua naturelle.” One is carbonated; the other isn’t. That is, one comes out of your nose, the other doesn’t. On the table beside water bottles sit carafes of red wine and cans of beer. Coke appears to be the rough equivalent of an energy drink; apparently, Hammer Nutrition does not yet have a European office.

Runners in the Tor have one drop bag that follows them from one Life Station to the next. In between these stations, the smaller water and food stations are six to 12 kilometers apart. Due to the rugged terrain and time it takes to cover it, runners must carry mandatory gear: spare clothing, water, food, two headlamps, spare batteries, rain shell, cell phone, elastic tape, altimeter, whistle, emergency blanket and a cup.

I fill my cup with some “Coca-Cola energy drink” and sift through my drop bag, preparing for the night. An overflowing plate of rigatoni marinara lands in front of me and I devour it like I’m in an episode of Man versus Food.

A thunder clap pierces the tent’s calmness, and is followed closely by a sudden deluge of rain that vibrates the tent’s ceiling. I decide to wait out the storm, and have another helping of pasta. “Grazie,” I say to the smiling volunteer.

Thirty minutes later, I guzzle a cup of coffee before heading into a steady drizzle. In the town’s shoulder-wide streets, rain-slickened cobblestones glisten under soft yellow lights. I walk past a church and bell tower barely larger than a typical two-story, single-family home. The tick-tick of my trekking poles lulls me back into solitary race mode.

Reflectors line the way up a steep trail toward Col Fenetre, yet another 4000-foot climb—the fifth major climb of the day. I feel recharged from the two pasta plates I inhaled. In fact, this is the best I have ever felt heading into the night miles of an ultramarathon, and I experience a rare euphoria. I feel as if I could run forever—or perhaps to the finish line.
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.

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VACATION IS A THREE-LETTER WORD
The last time that I DNFed a race, in 1999, I awoke severely depressed the next morning. The morning after dropping from the Tor, church bells count to eight o’clock, almost in celebration. As the echo of bells fades, I hear an announcer’s voice through my room’s open window. Across an alleyway, in another piazza, the finish line is being set up and the audio system is being tested. I close my eyes again and try to imagine where the race’s front runners are—and how exhausted they must be.

2010 Tor finisher Angela Pierotti describes the course as follows, “The first half is incredible, and the second half only gets better.” That section—which is where many runners are at this point—charts a westerly course that parallels Italy’s border with Switzerland, all the way back to Mont Blanc and Courmayeur. Along the way, runners continue the arduous cycle of climbing cols and descending into towns. This boggles my mind: I was spent, and the finish line would have been at least three days away, if I had run a good pace.

Somewhere out there on the course’s second half, front runner and eventual second-place finisher, Frenchman Christophe Le Saux, was running within 10 minutes of the lead through mile 150. Volunteers at the next aid station where he was due grew concerned when he did not arrive. They hiked down the trail and found him asleep. After being shaken, he awoke refreshed and stormed on.

Still fighting the DNF blues, I decide to hike the race’s final 20-mile stretch to make peace with this beastly course, and perhaps witness firsthand the potential carnage I expect. Like glancing at a car accident, I am morbidly curious to see what a course like this can do to a body.

The Tor’s last major section begins in the small town of Saint Rhemey. A cobbled street narrows and winds up out of the valley, passing by windowed shrines to the Virgin Mary and farmers tending to slopeside fields. Sheltered public fountains provide a pleasant pause for runners. One runner sits, washing his socks, as I walk past.
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.”
TRIBUTE TO TENACITY
As the week creeps onward, the number of runners in Courmayeur increases each hour. Some are finishers, others are drops and it is easy to tell the two apart. Finishers hobble along the street, laboring to lift one leg and then the other. They are sunburnt and ghost-eyed. The DNFers display far more energy.

At breakfast on Friday morning, I strike up a conversation with an apparent runner. A one-liter pitcher of coffee sits in front of him as he eats in a nearly catatonic state, with an unfocused gaze somewhere beyond the rim of his mug, and a memory skipping like a broken record over a full week’s worth of trail running. “Did you finish?” I ask.

“Yes,” says Massimo Colle, 50, of Chiaverano, Italy.

“Did you ever consider quitting out there?”

“No, never,” replies Colle. His finishing time of 105 hours 56 minutes put him in 32nd place. Finishing position aside, there exists a chasm between the finishers and DNFers.

Nicki Rehn coveted a finish here, but by Monday morning, the 36-year-old runner from Calgary, Alberta, had joined the list of DNFers. Taking it in stride, she admitted to riding an emotional roller coaster afterward, hovering between disappointment and relief. “The course is too beautiful to suffer through,” she says.

I also hear of some elite DNFs: 2010 champion Italian Ulrich Gross, plus Double-Ironman, world-record holder, Adrian Brennwald of Switzerland, to name a couple. In all, 300 runners completed the 2011 Tor. More than 200 runners were left to reflect on what they could have done differently to finish.

Another DNFer, Gabi Schenkel of Zurich, Switzerland, dropped after nearly 116 miles, due to illness. While waiting for a ride from the aid station, she twirled in a mix of DNF emotions: “Sadness overcame me but I was still surrounded by these mountains and there were no tears shed.” By the end of the week, back in Courmayeur, she commandeered a huge, antique cowbell from a local shop owner and festively greeted finishers in town. She found consolation in words from friend and 2010 Tor finisher, Craig Sagel: “It’s not a DNF, it’s a DYB: Did Your Best.”

Even Schenkel’s father, not a runner himself, appreciated the Tor’s mystique. “This is not a race,” he says. “It is a meditation.”

Garett Graubins is a Senior Contributing Editor for Trail Runner.