|Life base bags|
|Registration at the Sports Center|
|Here we go!|
I figure I’ll have to write this in parts as it’s such a long event, so I’ve opted to tell my stories from one Life Base to the next. Each Base Vita is about 50km apart, and provides food and shelter as well as beds to sleep and medical attention if needed. There’s a lovely yellow Grivel duffel bag of all your kit that you can check in before the start, and that will be waiting for you at each life base to provide personal supplies. Mine was filled with mainly food, some clothes, batteries, medical kit and a spare pair of shoes. My plan was to go at a very steady pace, rest 20 minutes at each life base and sleep a total of 9 hours at selected refuges along the way. I’d been told the life bases were far too noisy to sleep at. Not quite the physical prep I hoped for given my work schedule this year, but I certainly felt better prepared mentally, especially after one last visualisation session with coach Matt Coops the day before. Ready or not, it’s happening anyway!
|Just before it starts pouring at the start!|
It wasn’t the most ominous start for the 4th edition of Tor Des Geants. After a glorious fortnight of sunshine and dry weather, it rained all night on Saturday, and on race morning it hadn’t quite let up. I’m up early, feeling rested and very excited, slightly dampened by the wet outside, but I have all the gear I need so we’re set to go. It’s meant to be a 10am start and the drizzle becomes proper rain by 9.30am, and we’re all (706 starters) waiting in the start pen itching to get a move on. The opening ceremony drags a little, announcing all previous winners and the elite runners who will be at the sharp end of the field, and it’s Bruno Brunod who gets the biggest cheer from the crowd.
|Courmayeur to Valgrisenche with all it’s ups and downs|
We’re flagged off (at last!) by 10.30am, running through the Courmayeur (1224m) towards the first climb up Col Arp (2571m). I see Steve Organ near the start, a familiar face at last, and then I’m caught up in the tightly packed chaos that characterises almost every race start. My poles are out from the beginning although I’m not using them yet, and I see a lot of runners have the long Nordic poles too.
|A third the way up Col Arp, we’ve come a long way!|
It’s a reasonably gradual 8km climb to the top, taking me over 2.5 hours, given congestion before the field spread out a bit. On the way up, I met Steve and Janet, organisers of the HK100 ultra. Both had done TDS and UTMB the week before, kudos! Also had some time with Jin Cao (who lives in Norway, did UTMB last week and is looking very strong!). I also meet some of the Technica team from China, who have a film crew following them as well. The rain came and went, necessitating a couple of stops along the way to shed and then put on some layers again as the temperature changed. It took me an hour to cover the 9km down the other side to La Thuile (1458m) and it’s certainly wasn’t warm .. or dry! I’m using the new Salomon Advanced Skin Hydro 12L set with two 500ml soft flasks instead of my usual 1.5L bladder, and refilling is a constant requirement. Nutrition is Perpetuem with Endurolytes and Anti-Fatigue Caps for now, although I made my Perp a little too thick and trying to suck it out of the soft flask is quite an effort.
|Arp, Arp and awaaaay!|
Up towards Refugio Deffeyes (2500m) and it’s getting much colder. There’s a bit of hail as I gain altitude and when I finally reach the refuge at 6.30pm, I take about 30 minutes to get more clothes on (my fingers aren’t working anymore despite 2 pairs of gloves) even though I only planned to stop at the life bases. It’s here that I first meet Sho, a Japanese race photographer who knows some ultra runners from Singapore, small world! I get going again to Col Haut Pas (Passo Alto, 2857m), which is another 2.8km of climbing. Just keep moving forward!
|Still some way to go to Col Haut Pas!|
It’s raining a little more now and just under 4km descent to Promoud (and another 10 minute pit stop to refuel and get my headlamp out) before heading up to Col Crosatie (2829m). By this time it’s dark, raining heavily, and the wind isn’t helping with how cold I’m getting. I’m alternating between ‘keep going’ and ‘what on earth have I let myself in for’ …
The climb up to Crosatie was pretty unpleasant. Given the weather, the terrain was mainly slippery rock, narrow and steep. It was UTMB all over again when I just kept getting passed by runners who were much stronger on the uphills, and I just had to keep my head down and keep ploughing forward. Just before the top the wind was pretty strong and all I could think of was praying I didn’t get frostbite in my fingers and toes (wet feet and waterproof gloves that weren’t really waterproof) and desperate to reach the top. All I could think of was stopping for 10 minutes in a warm hut for a hot drink, that’d be my reward for finishing this bloody climb. In consolation, no one else seemed to enjoying this bit either! Finally getting to the top, I see a small clear plastic hut with some equipment inside .. definitely not meant for stopping so I just swallow it and move on. I’m quite happy running downhill in almost any terrain or condition so this is a chance to warm up a little and get some speed on. I’m wearing my Salomon Sense Ultras, no issues so far, and at least there’s less wind on this side.
|The plastic hut just over the top of Col Crosatie .. not very inviting! Photo credit: Luca Benedet|
I have to slow down a little as it’s slippery and visibility isn’t great, and I’m about 150m from the top when it happens. I catch up to a guy ahead, and I’m just thinking about passing him when he takes a left and disappears down the cliff. Suddenly it’s all systems go, I’m shouting for him, for help, and go to check if he’s ok. Looking over the side, all I see is a steep, wet grassy slope, a pair of poles and a hat. There’s a thousand things going through my mind right now, I’m shouting for help as I go retrieve the poles – he might need them if he’s hurt! – can’t reach the hat as it’s too close to the edge! – help!help!help! – what the hell is ‘help’ in Italian??
I’m running down the mountain now, trying to see if I can spot where he fell. I hear someone shouting, someone’s found him! I yell back that I’m coming. I nearly crash into a group of 5 runners making their way down slowly, they’re holding shoulders in a train, maybe because it’s slippery with poor visibility. The last person in the train is one of the China Technica guys and I’m pulling him along for help. Somehow we manage to grab an Italian runner too, so it’s 3 of us making our way off the trail across to where the man has fallen.
He’s lying perpendicular to the slope, and I work out he’s fallen about 150m from where he slipped. He’s conscious, moaning, with gashes on his head and a stream of blood down the rock beneath him. We’ve covered him with some emergency blankets and the first guy there has put something under his head as well. I’m calling the SOS number as I seem to be the only one with a signal on my phone. I don’t notice the first guy leaving, and the other Italian says he’s a doctor, and we shouldn’t move him. Yeah, ok. I pass the phone to him to make the call, as I figure it’ll be better to be reported in Italian than to confuse matters more with another language.
So we wait. The Technica chap is freezing so he leaves, then the Italian doctor does the same. I don’t blame them, and I’m grateful that I was mostly warm and dry with all my kit on. I think it’s been half an hour since it all happened. Still a thousand things in my head – What if I have to stay here all night? Will he be ok? What can I do? Is this the end of my race? Is anybody coming?? This is crazy. I’m there in some of the worst possible conditions trying to talk to this poor man so he doesn’t lose consciousness and keep him as warm as possible. WHERE ARE THEY??
It’s nearly an hour since the incident, I now know that his name is Yang Yuan, he’s from China, with no kids or wife. He came here alone and his whole body hurts. My mandarin needs some serious brushing up. I decide I need help and start blowing my whistle and waving my headlamp and poles. We’re off the trail so we can’t be seen easily, and since I’d lost a lot of places in that last climb, I guessed the people coming over the top now would be in a poor position to notice me, not to mention stop and help. My efforts at blowing my whistle in SOS morse code are falling on deaf ears due to the wind direction (I used a Fox 40 whistle, pretty sure the standard Salomon ones would not have helped!), but my lights and pole waving seem to have attracted some attention at last.
Two runners come over and whilst one leaves soon after in search of help and a better mobile phone signal (my fingers so cold I can’t even take my phone out of my pocket now), the other stays to help. Andrea’s company was very welcome, and we managed to communicate with a mix of French and Italian. I think he put another survival blanket on Yang Yuan, so we covered him from head to toe and tried to keep the blankets from flying off in the wind.
FINALLY someone comes .. it feels like we’ve been waiting forever, and I’m running out of things to say to Yang Yuan. He barks into a radio and goes off again .. come back!! Then an age later he’s back with a friend, a tent and a bivvy bag. Suddenly things are moving. We get Yang Yuan into the insulated bivvy bag, he’s still lucid and able to move his neck so that gives me some hope for his recovery. Then I’m holding onto the tent, pitched about 30m away where it’s flatter and less unstable, and the three men carry Yang Yuan to the tent. Once he’s in, we’re told we can go. The last thing I hear is one of the men telling him that he’s lucky he’s been found and don’t go to sleep.
|Markers and route estimations along the way.|
Andrea and I make our way downhill to Planaval (1517m) meeting a doctor and two sets of mountain rescuers hiking up. I’m praying Yang Yuan will be ok, and grateful for Andrea’s company, but we don’t say much about what’s just happened. I warm up along the way, grateful for a hot drink at Planaval, where there’s a time checkpoint. The next stop is the Valgrisenche life base, nearly 7km away, but it’s flat-ish, and Andrea and I stick together till then. It’s a surprisingly quick section, and we reach Valgrisenche just after 2am, 16 hours from when we first started in Courmayeur, and I’d already spent at least half that time saying I’d never do this again. I’m dazed, tired, cold and not quite sure what to do. Seeing Steve sat calmly by the entrance to the life base just made everything feel even more surreal.
After watching the rather wet start, Steve decided to see if he could find me at the first life base, and I am truly grateful that he did. I think I talked Steve’s ear off in the first 15 minutes, whilst he very kindly tried to work out if I needed anything. A familiar face and just being able to relate my story in English really helped! What a night. I’d estimated reaching Valgrisenche at 5.15am, so I was 3 hours ahead of my plan despite spending an extra 2 hours on the side of the cliff. Mentally I was all over the place and spent an hour at there trying to sort myself out. I’d ruled out changing socks as I only had one extra pair and it was still raining .. might as well just keep the wet ones on. I’d pay for that big time later.
|Slightly dazed at Valgrisenche, Life Base 1 – Photo credit: Wang Bo|
Once I was fed, watered and had stopped talking for the most part, Steve gently ushered me out. I’d lost Andrea as he’d planned on getting some sleep there so off I went on my own. The plan was to climb just over 8km to Chalet de l’Epée and get an hour’s kip there. I don’t want to leave the warm, brightly lit life base, but I’m out the door, bundled up and staring at the lit path from my headlamp again. It feels like I’ve already gone a very long way, but it’s only been 48.6km, just a little more than a standard marathon. Oh well, here we go again.