“Tor des Géants zero edition”
And who would have thought? A year ago I was sitting comfortably in Place de l'Armitiè in Chamonix, sipping my ritual beer pre UTMB – Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc – when what should fall under my hand? A flyer for a 330 km 24000 m D+ race which would take place in mid September in the Aosta Valley.
The first thing that I thought was "They cannot be serious!". A little later came fragmentary news of the zero edition and then more specific details, a site, a regulation, a path and a name: TOR DES GEANTS.
I enrolled almost as a joke… I confirmed everything and kept telling myself "well, let’s start for now, and then, whatever will be will be”. The clock is ticking, the training, the races and then the TOR- just don’t think about it. I stand at the start of my fourth UTMB and when, due to the bad weather, I stop at Saint Gervais, I realise that the next race would be Him.
Everything was done to perfection. Road Book, altimetries, programmes, “damn... but now it’s getting really serious". On Saturday morning, after the ritual household chores I prepare my bag and depart towards Courmayeur. I arrive and everything is perfect: a warm welcome, a well-equipped race packet and suitable materials at our disposal given by the organising staff, excellent “pasta party” and punctual briefing about technical details and weather conditions. There is nothing left to do except sleep it off for a night and to not think too much about it.
… and so to the start. There are many familiar faces of friends with whom we have conquered many routes. It seems like a family. It’s nice to see that the organisation team, even without the need of qualifying races, has managed to attract the "cream"/the best athletes of the trail world thanks to the course and organisation. Spectacular!
Given the extent of the task, I already decided some time ago to share this adventure with Beppe, who has already been my tireless companion in the desert and it is with him that I like to spend some moments just before the departure. We laugh, we joke, we try not to think of what will happen shortly, when the starter shall go and the switch will turn on in our brain.
Here we go.
The cheering along the course strikes me immediately: everyone applauds and encourages you... what a wonderful sensation.
We start to rush towards the high pass, a beautiful climb which is not very demanding, between waterfalls and forests, to be done "with a lot of heart". Then we arrive at a descent down to a terrible scree which soon makes me realise that this time the "beast" to be tamed does not have the physical appearance of the more famous trails. This time we are dealing with the mountain, the real one, that of rocks and stones.
We are completely overwhelmed by the spectacle that surrounds us, addicted to the rock, eager to make headway.
We attack Col Fenêtre. The climb is very demanding, leg breaking slopes where it is difficult to find normal footing. The tough climb combines with the first crisis of tiredness/fatigue and forces us to stop several times. At 100 m from the summit, the clouds lower and we find ourselves in the midst of a hailstorm, visibility is poor and the cold is biting, now the situation is really critical. We keep calm and slowly we descend.
We arrive in the small town of Rhemes Notre Dame where to welcome us, under a downpour, are a group of kids who, in the dead of night, are there to cheer us on. It fills me with joy.
We have a short break and set off again to attack the Entrelor peak, 3000 m above sea level. On another backbreaking climb our batteries are running low. We are lagging, we try to advance in any possible way, but the only thing that we are able to say is that we are dead tired and that perhaps we started off too strong. We cross the hill at dawn and we are faced with the long descent in the light of day. We try to find new energy because the next hill is the Losson and is 3300 m above sea level. Needless to say we feel the altitude.
At the mountain hut ‘Rifugio Sogno’ we have to stop again to sleep. Now I can understand the difference between one or two hours of good sleep and false sleep in normal life. After only an hour of sleep we set off again, completely regenerated, and we tackle the last stretch which separates us from Donnas.
Our clothes are always damp with sweat and the combination of the nauseating smell we emanate, the sleep deprivation, the fatigue per km and the accumulated height difference, we shed the appearance of civilised men gained through years of evolution. We are regressing into an animal state. I cannot think beyond the next step and the only thing I can take into consideration is the fact that at every step I take, there are less and less km left to the end.
In these conditions we reach the hut ‘Rifugio Coda’ at sunset. A spectacle granted to me by nature as a reward for all my efforts made so far. A fire sunset with the sun hiding behind the most beautiful peaks of the Aosta Valley. Thank God for having given me the possibility to be there.
When we set off again I feel really well but Beppe is losing ground. I wait for him, he tells me that he needs to rest and to go on ahead, he tells me to keep on doing my race. I find myself alone... it might happen.
I arrive in Gressoney, exhausted by the heat; the sweat, the smell and the wet clothes annoy me. I need to take a shower, to refresh myself and to feel clean for a moment. I arrive at the sports hall and immediately, without even undressing, I finally take a cold shower.
Beppe is sitting there, withdrawn from the competition. A lump forms in my throat, I hold back the tears, while he seems to be peaceful.
Damn, I am going to spend my third night in the middle of the mountains and, despite everything, I still push on. Loneliness plays terrible tricks, in some moments I cry, in others I laugh in others I take the mick out of myself and in others I find that I am talking to myself. I often think about my children and they make me smile. Other times I think of my wife who will be angry with me due to yet another week of my absence from home to compete in a race, and the words of an ex-professional cyclist friend spring to my mind: "those who do not do/experience it, will never understand". /Only those who have experienced it are able to understand
Three quarters of the way up a crisis strikes! My Energy is spent, I devour everything that I have in my back pack but it is not enough, I am a zombie. I plod uphill lifting my feet with difficulty. Like a mirage in the desert the Tournalin refuge appears in front of me. I enter with a rather worrying appearance, the manager asks me if everything is ok, but I do not reply. I feel like I am in a bubble, everything seems distant.
I am accompanied to my room where I fall into a deep sleep for about an hour and a half. I start again completely regenerated. At about 3.00pm I am at the Grand Raye tundra, it is a beautiful day, I take off my shoes, I get a loaf of nut and raisin bread, a lovely mug of hot tea and go to sunbathe. I don’t know what day it is, I don’t care, I don’t know what rank I am in the race and at this moment I really don’t care. I only know that I am here, in heaven, 2300 m above sea level with the marmots whistling in the background, eating something delicious and being kissed by the rays of the sun…
I feel like God and I give myself a half an hour break.
I depart with Aldo, another lunatic who did the grand raid of the Pyrenees two weeks before. I feel good but I am also sufficiently “fed up” of this race.
I begin the last endless climb towards Malatrà. I see that the hut is so far away. I feel like I am going to have a breakdown. I arrive at the mountain farmhouse, completely exhausted. I ask if there is a place to sleep but the boy in charge says to me “I’m sorry but this is only a water point” but luckily for me, without even giving him time to finish his sentence, a herdsman takes me by the shoulders, takes me home, lays me down on a bed and puts an electric blanket on me to warm me up. I remain immobile in that wonderful warmth. I put my clothes out to dry near the stove and have dinner with the family. I nearly cry. Two good helpings of minestrone soup, a nice "chunk" of bread and a kg of fresh pasture cheese. This is also the spirit of the TOR, a region which opens its arms to ‘trailers’.
The last 15 km are pure formality. The climb to the Malatrà, however challenging, is pure anthology. After that it is all downhill, especially the end. The Bonatti comes quickly and then I am home, on course for “my” UTMB. Just enough time for tea at the Bertone and then in 40 minutes I am in Courmayeur.
No tears this time, I shed them all in the days before. Only the need to kneel upon arrival at the presence of God who gave me the means to complete a race like that.
All that is remaining is to congratulate the organisation, the volunteers and the entire Aosta Valley that have made this Tor des Géants perfect.
in U.Ti.Emme RUN, 4 October 2010 / extract