TDG Section 3 – Cogne to Donnas (46.6km)

It’s 4.13am and I’m leaving the Cogne life base. It’s Tuesday and the start of my third day in TDG, but I have to think for a while before I work it out. It’s now a 16+km climb to the Fenetre di Champorcher (2827m) so it should be steady and not too steep. About 3hrs of darkness before the sun comes up, maybe I can reach the top by then, that’d be nice. Looking at my planned timeline, I was meant to leave Cogne at 3am. I thought I was ahead of schedule .. where on earth did my buffer go?? Suddenly I’m not so relaxed after all. I can’t even contemplate another 4 days of plodding on, mountain after mountain, and I try to reign it all back in and concentrate on the task ahead. Must’ve been the kip I had at Sella, that wasn’t a planned stop but a much needed rest nonetheless. And I’ve been spending 20-40 minutes at every water stop, even more if it’s a life base .. that definitely wasn’t on my plans. I’ve basically frittered away a stack of time because I wasn’t able to focus on moving forward once I’d stopped for a break. Time to get serious. Someone along the trail said this was probably the easiest bit, a long gentle climb followed by 30+km downhill. We’ll see!

I’m pretty much alone in the dark, making progress slowly and hoping it’ll get light soon. It’s cold, and gets colder the higher I get. At least the cold numbs my feet so my blisters are quite as painful now. It’s been cold and dark at each life base stop so far and I haven’t had any inclination to take my shoes and socks off to change them. Big mistake, but it’s gone too far to redeem now.

This is the Gran Paradiso National Park and just as it’s getting light the trail goes onto a large road that leads into the main parkland. There’s frost on the ground and I’m starting to fall asleep again. My super caffeine chewing gums make an appearance again and I chew furiously but it doesn’t seem to dent my fatigue this time. I pass a little Japanese lady who’s flagging a little and after we stop to take pictures of a waterfall along the way (mine came out blurry, not even sure why I did it), we chat and walk for a short distance. I’ve given her a caffeine gum as well and I plough ahead, half expecting her to suddenly power past me in a caffeine fuelled boost.

Waterfall in Grand Paradiso NP, just before sunrise .. looked better in real life! 😉

The terrain is moor-like, and reminds me of the grassy tufts on Dartmoor, narrow trails worn in amongst the hardy shrubbery, all on a much gentler incline compared to the last couple of days. I pass a French lady who’s also having trouble staying awake, and share another of my caffeine gums and push forward. The frosty edge to the air won’t let me slow down too much, and although its light at last, the sun is far from warming me up yet as we’re on the shady side of the mountain.

Here comes the sun .. again!

Moderate hiker with a rucksack. Moderate hiker with a rucksack. Surely I’m at least moving like a moderate hiker with a rucksack. A very cold one at that. Passing a couple of cattle sheds, I come to Rifugio Sogno at last. It wasn’t my plan to stop, but the thought of some respite from the biting cold draws me in. Plus I can feel blisters on my heels and the balls of my feet from my wet shoes and socks are well and truly formed and causing me some serious pain. It’s the best reception at any stop by far, I’m looked after like gold-dust, made to sit down and tea is brought to me. I haven’t had any tea at the stops yet as I don’t drink much of the stuff, but the smiley volunteer presented me with what he claimed was ‘the best cup of tea ever’ .. it would’ve been rude not to. It was lemon tea! Hot, sweet, and not at all what I’d expected. I expressed my surprise to the weathered Italian sharing my table, and he immediately tried to get some lemon for my tea. Must work on my Italian!

Time to sort out my blisters. First aid kit out, shoes and socks off for the first time in over 30 hours. i’m punctured, drained and taped up and should get a move on. Last bit of a mountain to climb. Kazuko (little Japanese lady) and French lady have both come in by now for some warmth and refuelling. Right, off we go then! Big cheers from the volunteers for every exit, and shouts of encouragement. coming round the back of the rifugio, I see it. The climb ahead looks steep by tempered with long switchbacks that will make it even longer. But I can see the top, and that makes a huge difference. I can do that. Find a rhythm and get going. Sadly my feet are even more sore now having dealt with my blisters, but nothing I can do about that. Just keep going!

Halfway up to Fenetre di Champorcher, a gentle 16km climb 🙂

Getting to the top seems suspiciously easy, and there’s a couple at the top who are cheers all the runners on. 30km downhill now? Count me in! I shed a couple of layers in anticipation of the heat, we’re on the sunny side of the mountain now! I’ve been telling myself I have to finish this because I never want to do it again, and today is starting to feel bearable and my spirits have lightened no end at the prospect of an ‘easy’ day. Don’t believe everything you hear.

I’m running now, and the trail widens and flattens with the same moor-like landscape I was used to in South West England. The weather’s getting better by the minute and I’m having a great time moving at a steady jog. Rifugio Miserin is not open and I run past it towards Rifugio Dondena, meeting a herd of cows and the farmer along the way. My feet are starting to feel really sore on the rocky gravel path, and I stop when confronted with a line of cows headed directly at me. Not quite sure what to do .. surely they’ll go around me? And then Kazuko comes trotting past me and all the cows, with a cheery ‘Hello! Jeri-chan!’ I’m suitably embarrassed at city slicker approach to cows, and I run to keep up with her. I notice she’s wearing Hokas and am envious of the apparent bounciness they seem to put in her stride. Hokas seem to be a popular choice of shoe in this race, and whilst I love my Salomon Sense Ultra, my feet are screaming for a bit more cushioning right now. We chat and run whilst I daydream about stealing her shoes, and we’re soon at Rifugio Dondena. No stop for me, I’m aware I need to make up some time, and I make sure my number is recorded before carrying on through.    

Back on my own again (Kazuko stopped at Dondena for a bit), the trail changes and the descent becomes more pronounced. Feet hurting more by the minute, and the trail becomes a rocky descent that makes me wince with every step. Can Salomon please make Hoka-style shoes??!! 6km to Chardonney on a torturously slow and painful downhill made me regret thinking this would be an easy day and I’m in a foul mood by the time I get into Chardonney at 12.15pm. Barry from HK is already there, and I get questioned by the China filmcrew again about how I’m doing. I’m back in ahead of schedule, I planning to be there at 2.20pm, but I also missed a scheduled 2hr sleep stop at Dondena. Will have to make that up somewhere, but for now I’m back on track.  
Photo credit: Steve Organ
These are NOT fun to run down!

I get going again reluctantly, but mindful not to stop too long as my feet hurt more with rest. Barry left before me and I see him ahead but I’m in no condition physically or mentally to catch up. I don’t even remember what the trail was like on this bit, I was in so much pain I’ve probably blocked it out. It was a really torturous 10km downhill hobble to Pontboset, and I was cursing every step and hatching a plan to steal the next pair of Hokas I saw bouncing past me down the trail. I finally get to Pontboset, and the little tented water-stop has two other people there. Barry and Stephane. Stephane was one half of the French couple I’d met the previous day, and he’d come tearing past me downhill at some point earlier. I didn’t recognise him without his partner then, but now I’d twigged. Coke and salami made me feel better, and I grit my teeth in anticipation of the next pain-filled 10km downhill to Donnas. Stephane comes with me while Barry opts to rest a little longer.

Just out of Pontboset, fairytale bridges galore.

It’s on road for a bit and I’m just going steady, grateful that at least I have a reasonably smooth surface to run on for now. Stephane is on my heels and I tell him to come past if he’d prefer. Instead he says he’s happy to follow my pace. A sudden sense of accountability makes me pick up the pace, and soon we’re both running at a pretty good clip. Despite my mangled feet, my poles are helping no end in vaulting over stuff. We’re back on the trail and it’s a little technical with more small climbs than I expected. Still, the conversation is great (food, mainly!) and I’m having a good time with Stephane for company, and pushing the pace the whole way. It feels so good to be moving fast, and I’m worried that this’ll be my grand effort before I have to DNF, but who cares! Best bit of the race so far! We pass quite a few runners and I also learn that Stephane’s partner had dropped out at Cogne. They were right on the cut off last night and today he’s made up something like 7 hours including our 10k together. Well done! 

I look at my watch and realise we will arrive in Donnas WAY before my estimated time, and think about messaging Steve to let him know. And then I promptly forget. So when we get into Donnas and I’m fantasising about getting an ice-cream (since steak, confit du canard and Burger King are out of the question) as we run through the town, I suddenly remember I need to tell Steve I’m ahead of schedule. Aaargh! 
But wait. There he is. Literally walking towards us just before we reach the Donnas sports hall life base. How on earth did he work that out??!! Turns out Steve has put his brilliant geek powers to creating a spreadsheet that predicts my arrival times with uncanny precision, even if I change my speed. I couldn’t even comprehend it, but was delighted to see him.
Photo credit: Steve Organ
Signing in at Donnas. Photo credit: Steve Organ
Facebook smile! Photo credit: Steve Organ

Super hyped from the run endorphins, it’s 4.15pm and I’d targeted 9pm. Back in the black! I faff around for ages, scoffing a mountain of food, getting my feet patched up by the medic (who shakes his head and say ‘Why you do this??’), and taking a SHOWER. It didn’t occur to me that I’d have time to take a shower at all during this race so I’d just chucked a massive pack of wet wipes in my drop bag instead. Lucky I’d put a towel in too, and after a hot shower I felt like I could conquer the world. With some sleep first, though. Reading texts of encouragement from The Beast and a few other friends is a boost too, but I save that for the life bases as It’s too distracting to keep checking my phone while I’m trying to make progress.

First shower after 3 days.. AWESOME! Photo credit: Steve Organ
Best pit crew ever! 🙂

I’m ignoring my own rule not to sleep at the life bases (too noisy) and try to find a bed upstairs. No luck. Everyone is in the midst of their kip and there’s no 2hr limit here like at the refuges. I have to wait nearly 30 mins before I get a bed, and Steve has strict instructions to wake me in 2 hours. I toss and turn for ages and finally doze off only to find Steve is trying to wake me. I’ve slept about 30 minutes. This is not good. Still, I’m up, out, and off to get ready. Steve’s stocked me up with M&Ms, Snickers and Mars bars which I’ve been craving, I have another plate of tuna potato salad and change my shoes and socks. The Salomon XT6 have so much more support compared to my ultras that they almost feel like Hokas. Almost. Somehow I’ve managed to waste A LOT of time at Donnas, and I leave the life base at 9pm, nearly 5 hours after getting there. It felt like a much needed respite, but I could’ve been more efficient about it, I’m gutted about the lack of sleep, and now it’s dark outside again. Steve gently reminds me that time is getting on, and I’m out the door, with the aim of getting to Rifugio Coda – 18kms and a short sharp climb away. feeling fine, feet much better for the rest and fresh shoes and socks, but I’m not even halfway. How on earth did I let myself waste so much time at Donnas when I have cutoffs to make?! The pressure is ever so slightly back on again.

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