Tor des Geants was a great experience and I must say, I really enjoyed it. Sure, there were moments of feeling utterly exhausted, craving real food and a long, deep sleep but what an incredible journey. On the whole, I kept pretty happy throughout the week with just one day of wondering why I was doing this to myself, but that thought soon passed! It took a day or two to settle into the race, getting to know how the life bases and refuge huts worked, but it's surprising how quickly we adapt.
The route runs along the Alta Via 1 and Alta Via 2 of the Valle d'Aosta, with the start and finishing line in Courmayeur and is a self-paced race of 336 km (200 miles) with an altitude range of 24,000 metres with 150 hours to complete it. There are life bases set up throughout the week where you can get a hot meal, shower, access your drop bag and get some sleep. These tend to be busy places with people coming and going so the chances of getting any real sleep are slim but they're a great place to get yourself clean and fed before heading out into the mountains again.
There are also certain refuge huts in the mountains that you're able to sleep at for no more than 2 hours. I quickly found that these were the best places to get some shut-eye as they're not as busy as the life bases and a 2 hour sleep when you're exhausted feels wonderful!
Even though this is a self-paced race, you still have to make various cut-off times throughout the course but I realized on Day One that this wouldn't be a problem so I didn't bother take much notice of my times/pace etc and because of this, it made TdG one of the most relaxing "races" I've been in. There are some weird timings as to when you have to leave a life base ie you have to leave by midnight on one day, 2 am on another .... this means that you're forced to run during the night time which added to the sleep deprivation. And that was a whole new experience for me - I was having early morning hallucinations by the end of the week which I've never had before but were fun and entertaining.
One thing I learnt from racing UTMB last summer was that it is super steep in the Alps so I knew that TdG would be an incredibly challenging course every day for 6 days. I took it pretty easy on Day One as this is the day that will either contribute to your success or your demise; it's amazing how many people take off as if they're in a 10-km race from the starting line - this is great if you're some super-fit mountain goat, but it sure is a difficult pace to maintain for that type of distance. I took the tourist approach - get there when you get there and remember to stop and enjoy the views en route. The one thing that is hard in this type of steep environment is getting your head around how long it takes to cover a short distance. On the first day, it took me 13 hours to cover 43 km which is super long (even for me!) And there are times when even 5 km will take a couple of hours so I found having a "get there when you get there" approach kept me from going insane!
My goal from the beginning was to get to the finishing line on the morning of the 6th day, hopefully in one piece, but my main goal was to enjoy it as much as possible and I found this easy to do. When you break it down to its bare bones, the only things you need to know on a daily basis is that you're going to be hoofing it up a steep uphill for hours and hours (and hours), and then you'll cross some crazy mountain pass, and then you'll drop down for hours and hours until you reach the valley floor and then you do it all again, sometimes many times over during a 20-hour period including doing all this through the night when you're so tired that you end up staggering on the trail, hoping you don't fall off the mountain. Oh, and if you're lucky, you may get to sleep for a couple of hours here and there.
I bumped into Steve periodically either on the trail or at a life base which was great. During the last leg, I decided to stay at a couple of refuge huts en route to the finishing line. By this time, a huge part of me was eager to get finished - my stomach was sick of all the running food and I was having a hard time getting calories down me. But on the other hand, I really wanted to finish in the daylight as it's a shame to miss out on the beautiful mountain scenery. Plus it's way safer to hit the last downhill section in the daylight. So I ended up making an additional stop at the Bonatti refuge hut for a 2 hour sleep and just before going to the dorm, Steve walked in! Talk about perfect timing - it meant that we could sleep for a couple of hours and then head off at sunrise and cross the finishing line together.
I met loads of great people at TdG and also saw some of our Calgary friends out there too which was a treat. There was a nice feeling amongst people - everyone trying to get to the finishing line and everyone dealing with their own challenges either physical or mental while doing so. The scenery throughout this course is utterly amazing. And the towns and villages that we ran through were very neat and tidy, with friendly people giving support. It's a very well run event and the volunteers do a great job. What a great event - thank you to everyone involved!