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Tor des Geants Section 7 – Ollomont to Courmayeur (49.08km)

Are we there yet??
It’s Friday afternoon at 4.45pm and I’ve just left the Ollomont life base. I’ve now completed 283.5km and have been on the go (more or less) for about 126 hours. Apart from sore feet, a loose toenail, sore knees and the random hallucination, I’m feeling just fine. Nothing else is actually bothering me and when I take stock I realise that I’m actually feeling pretty good.
I happily wave goodbye to Steve and trundle off into the sunset. It’s pretty cold out despite the sunny afternoon but it’s a decent climb ahead to warm me up. It’s steep going up to Col Champillon (2709m), and I am passed by a group of Italians in good spirits. It’s the last section to Courmayeur, less than 50km to the finish, and for a lot of us the finish now looks like a real possibility. I stop at Rifugio Champillon for some warm soup and it’s full of runners who stopped for a meal. I see Harald again, and he heads off to find a bed for a few hours, and Kazuko is there too, filling her plate and having a great conversation with the Italians. Runners seem to have lots of supporters at this rifugio, and the atmosphere is quite upbeat. I put on all my warm layers and head out with Kazuko, but not before the Italians promise to meet us in Courmayeur for a beer. Nearly there!
It’s more steep ascent to the Col and I’m looking forward to running down the other side. The downhills seem to be better for me than the climbing although my knees are starting to complain about the pounding they get. Going over the top, I start running down, and the terrain is a bit more moor-like again, with narrow trails worn into the mountain shrubbery. I’m not far down when I realise I’m in trouble. My feet HURT. The pain gets so bad that Kazuko in her hoppity Hokas just bounces past me, and disappears down the mountain.
I try to run on the grassy bits instead, but this doesn’t really offer much respite. My mood’s swung from anticipation of the finish (perhaps a little premature!) to a despair that I’ll probably need to endure this pain for the next 15-20 hours that it’ll take me to finish. Gaaaaah!!
I’m caught by a group of older men, two of whom are racing and the others have opted to escort their friends for the last stretch to Courmayeur. I try to stay with them as it gets dark, and get in line at te back of their little group. The chap in front of me has Hokas on and my headlamp is focused on them all through the descent as I try and fight the pain in my feet. I’ve never wanted a descent to end more than that one. I was nearly in tears when we finally got to the bottom. I have no idea where I am, but the group seems to so I just do my best to stick with them. One of the escorts was helping out at a previous checkpoint and remembers me. As the trail flattens out, we talk about all sorts in a mix of French, Italian and English, and I’m grateful for the distraction. We reach a checkpoint (Pointelle Desot) and everyone goes inside to take stock and get warm. Kazuko’s in there warming up by a fire, together with a few other runners. One of them remembers me from along the trail, but sadly he’s pulling out there due to knee problems. This stop definitely calls for cheese. Sitting down gives my feet some respite and by the time the guys are ready to go again, I’m feeling in better spirits. 
It’s 10km to the next checkpoint and according to the guys, it’s flat. Yeah right. They’re not wrong though. It’s very gently undulating on the next stretch, but despite that I’m having serious problems. My feet hurt to a point where I can’t even keep up with the guys. They try to encourage me but it’s no use. I’m getting slower and slower as each step really is agony. I don’t understand why I’m in so much pain now. The trail is a lot like the pebbled reflexology paths we see along the park connectors, maybe not quite as severe. But it feels like I’m walking barefoot on sharp rocks .. I can’t do the reflexology path even at the best of times!
Try walking on this barefoot! Photo: Amanda Wright

What I thought would be a steady 50km to the finish is turning out to be a nightmare exercise in pain management and endurance. Another friendly escort turns up (I’ve forgotten all their names!), and he’s taken on the task of helping me along. Turns out he owns a climbing equipment shop and is a very nice chap. we find Kazuko on the way (she’s weaving all over the trail and looks desperately in need of some sleep). She’s added to the drawn out group, as is Tamura Satoshi, a deaf runner from Japan. All I remember about the next bit is that I was worried I wouldn’t be able to finish. How could I do 300km and not be able to finish the last 30?! That’s just cruel. I was just about crying from the pain, each step felt like my feet were on fire and I was so tired that I was ready to on the trail. Climber guy assured us we were nearly at St-Rhemy-en-Bosses, the next rest stop. We finally got out ont a big road and could see the town lights, but it was a genuine case of “Are we there yet!”. It seemed to take forever and then some to get to the checkpoint, and I am truly grateful for Steve coming out at ungodly hours to meet me along the way. Once again Steve miraculously appears to lift my spirits. Doesn’t do much for the pain in my feet, but it somehow cheers me up a little seeing a familiar face. I’m at utter rock bottom now, and we herd Kazuko in front of us as our little trio reaches the St-Rhemy checkpoint. (Climber guy went ahead at the road to find his friends.) There’s a crowd at the checkpoint, all waiting to cheer friends and family on this last section. Steve guides me to the food tent where I have some hot soup and a slice of pizza. At this point I’m so tired and miserable that I need a little comfort, gluten-intolerance be damned.

Hot soup and pizza at St-Rhemy. Photo: Steve Organ

I’m desperate for sleep now. Kazuko and I are ushered to a building and beds on the first floor. I’m in agony climbing up the stairs, but try not to think about any more than getting some rest. I ask to be woken in an hour, and Steve promises to double check that they do. What a star.

When I lay down on the bed, my feet were throbbing so hard that it really started to worry me. But fatigue won out in the end and it was probably the deepest sleep I’ve had since TDG started, and an hour feels like nothing. But given the state I’m in I need all the time I can get if I’m going to hobble to the finish. I make sure I’ve got every possible item of clothing on, it’s freezing outside. Literally. I have 3 pairs of gloves on and I’m extremely reluctant to move out. The memory of the pain from the previous 10km is still fresh in my mind. For the first time ever, in any race that I’ve ever done, I take painkillers. I ask Steve what he thought .. ibuprofen or Panadol? I took both, just to be on the safe side. The picture below sums it up. I really did not want to go out there!

Heading out of St-Rhemy. Photo: Steve Organ

I think it’s about 2am now, and this is the last major climb ahead to Col Malatra (2936m). Nothing for it, just keep moving forward! I’m off and out, and feeling much better after the short sleep. My feet are still sore, but I suspect the rest has allowed my brain to power up again, enough to deal with the pain a little better. I’m climbing and alone, no other headlamps to be seen at all. It’s a while before I realise my feet don’t hurt too much anymore, the painkillers have finally kicked in and this is AWESOME. Ok, here we go.

The trail is crazy in the dark, some bits are where the fauna have eaten, chewed or trampled the markers so they’re few and far between. There’s tiny trails that criss-cross everywhere and it’s not so simple in the dark. I’ve suddenly caught up with some Spaniards (maybe .. for some reason I thought they were speaking Spanish) and follow them for a short while before I realise that they’re all a bit lost too. I take the lead as they all are really fatigued and desperate for the next checkpoint to rest. I trying hard to keep a good pace so that we can all make it there sooner, but they end up falling behind. I move ahead and stop periodically to check their headlamps are still following, particularly at a river crossing that edges a very sharp drop off to one side. After what seems like hours of hiking, Rifugio Frassati finally comes into view. Once again, a truly welcome sight. There’s little dots of headlamp lights all around, some entering, some leaving the rifugio, and others having made their way ahead.  It’s nearly 6am on Saturday and the closing cut-off at Frassati is 8am. It’s lovely and warm inside, and I decide to rest up till sunrise, not far off. It’ll be a huge boost and I’m so tired that I have a 10 minute power nap on the bench. There’s lost of people coming and going, some really hanging on with all they have, but there’s a current of hope and anticipation because we can almost reach out and touch the finish now. Familiar faces everywhere, tired smiles and determined grimaces.

I see Harald again at Frassati, he’s surprised to see me but we wait for the sunrise together and head out towards Col Malatra. This is Harald’s second TDG, he finished the 2012 edition but the last bit over Malatra to Courmayeur got snowed out so they cut it short by 30km. That’s why he’s back this year, to get a proper finish.  Same story with Matt M. Go through all that just to climb one more mountain and finish in Courmayeur? There’s no WAY you’d catch me doing that .. famous last words though! 😉

The sun is up and the climb to Malatra is stunning. It’s still freezing as the sun hasn’t quite reached us, and I finally feel lucid enough to get the camera out for some reminders of this crazy race.

Harald and I halfway up to Col Malatra.
The end is near!
I thought they were Spanish …
The valley behind us, that’s where we came through during the night.

It’s a steep climb up the last part of Malatra, with ropes to help .. difficult when you have poles in your hands, but it doesn’t last long so thank goodness for that!

Onward to Malatra – the peak is at the far left of the pic.
Up to the peak of Col Malatra – steeper than it looks! (Note the ropes ..)
View from the top with Mont Blanc in the background
The other side of Malatra – downhill, but the sun hasn’t quite reached it yet!

Going down the other side was out of the sun and 5.5km downhill to Rifugio Bonatti. The painkillers are starting to wear off and I can feel my feet and knees complaining as I run the descent. The finish is 12km from Bonatti – I can do this! I have to stop along the way and start peeling layers off as I warm up from my run, and when I look back there’s no one around. Everyone I met at the top of Malatra is having issues running downhill, but that’s not much of surprise given what we’ve been through. I’m so caught up in my daydreams of finishing that I get slightly lost and have to backtrack quite a bit to find Bonatti. The very lovely Valentina is there, helping her parents with manning the checkpoint. I met Valentina at the Courmayeur checkpoint for UTMB the week before, where she was patiently helping race crews track their runners.  I’d seen her early along the course and her cheerful greeting just added to my anticipated excitement of finishing. She made sure I left with a handful of mocetta, the delicious cured beef of the Aosta region, and the I was off again on my own.

It’s 9.30am with 12km to go, and it felt unbelievable that my mad journey was coming down to single digit figures! 6.5 hours to race cutoff, the finish was mine unless my legs fell off.

After a sharp descent from Bonatti, the trail profile looks pretty flat .. but the squiggles were back with a vengeance! I resign my self to trying to keep a reasonable pace and meet some friends along the way .. donkeys are bigger up close than I thought!

My TDG wildlife encounters 😉
I run up a large hill where there’s a few people sat waiting for runners to come past, and I’m hoping that’s close to Bertone (the next checkpoint), but no such luck. One of the spectators gets up and starts shouting, then starts running along with me as I crest the hill. It’s Li Jia, one of the photographers from the China Technica team. He’s been kitted out in Salomon everytime I’ve seen him and is signed up for an ultra in HK soon. Further along I understand why he was shouting. Wang Bo, another videographer/photographer is lying on the side of the trail trying to get a video and some pictures. I wave to him as I run past, and I hear him yelling that he’s got some nice shots. They’ve been great company along the way too, I’ve seen them at almost every major stop and they always ask how I am. Hats off to all the race crews and supporters, it’s not an easy job! 
Photo credits: Wang Bo.
Rifugio Bertone is much further than I thought it would be, but I ran the last bit in my first days at Courmayeur, and I was really looking forward to the 4.5km downhill from Bertone to Courmayeur. I catch up with a few guys as I reach Rifugio Bertone, and I don’t stop apart from a swig of Coke. The sun is shining, I don’t care what hurts, it’s (almost) a hop, skip and a jump to the finish! ALLEZ! 
Coming up the other way is the old chap I keep meeting. He’s been hiking backwards to find his wife (the French lady I met along the way to Rifugio Sogne in Section 3) all along the course, and we’ve seen each other often enough now to exchange greetings with a smile and a wave.
It feels like I’m flying on the last bit, hurtling down the trail. My poles are invaluable at helping me vault over stuff and I’m running high on adrenalin now. I pass a few runners along the way and hikers and supporters coming the other way. There was a small (probably inevitable) crash given my fatigues, the terrain, and the ‘speed’ I was going, but nothing I’m not used to! Finally getting back onto the road and off the trail just got me so exciting I was literally sprinting towards the town center. I pull out a Singapore flag and attach it to my poles, and I’m waving it enthusiastically at everyone. If anyone missed me coming in, there’s no way they would miss this crazy person waving a flag a meter above her head .. I was slightly worried that I might have it upside down or back to front, hence once I’d put it up, that’s where it was staying!
I see Steve waiting by the park and it’s a close call as to whose got the bigger grin. He’s trying to take pics and running with me at the same time, I’m just so delighted to see him, and that I’m going to FINISH! Running through the town, down the red carpet (flag waving the whole time), and it was a truly satisfying feeling crossing the line. 145 hours, 38 minutes and 29 seconds of rollercoaster emotions, sleep deprivation and some of the most breathtaking scenery I’ve ever seen. Done.
Photos: Lawrence Daly
Signing the finish poster
Signing the tribute poster in memory of Yang Yuan
Photo credits: Steve Organ

There were no tears, as I thought there might be, but I was so hyped on endorphins and the fact that I’d finished that I was grinning from ear to ear for the next 3 days. Steve hands me a bottle of champagne, apparently it was Andre Blumberg’s suggestion .. thanks Andre! Matt turn up – he finished well in 64th place nearly 2 days earlier than I did, what a star! He was walking a bit funny from having decided to use brand new Hokas (bought the day before and having never run in Hokas) for the race though! I knew there was something about those shoes! 😉

Photo: Steve Organ
Bottoms up! Photo: Pietro Celesia
Gelati at the finish! photo: Steve Organ
Andrea, my companion on the first night.
We all have some gelati to celebrate, which went perfectly with the champers 🙂 I hobble off back to the flat, get showered, changed and head back to the finish line to see the last few coming in. Andrea makes it back, as does Barry and Shuwen, and I must have missed Kazuko, but I see her at prize giving the next day. I feel battered but surprisingly good, and HUNGRY. I know from experience that the post-ultra furnace allows me to eat just about anything without the normal side-effects so pizza and cheese are on the menu! I do my best to scoff everything in sight, just a shame that the pain in my feet make getting around far slower than I’d like. The last two finishers come in to a hugely cheering crowd, it’s the French lady and some other guy! So glad she made it through 🙂
Barry from Hong Kong

The next day at prize giving, it’s raining. I’m all swollen from head to toe and barely managed to get my calf compression on the night before. Looks like a lot of people are the same, and the sports hall is a mass of smiling, limping, people with puffy faces.

With Kazuko, an amazing lady!
Harald, delighted with his second finish.
Iker had to have a pic with me 😉 Nice trophy!
Li Jia, photographer, videographer, runner and cheerleader for the China Technica team
Dottore – he fixed my feet and I owe him a beer!

Akemi – it was her second TDG finish!

They call out our names inidividually, starting from the last finisher, and present us each with our finisher fleece. Perfect for the weather outside!

The lovely Valentina
Giovanni and Stefano, whom I kept meeting all along the way

He STILL has his pack on!!
Fat feet!
Wang Bo, another photographer extraordinare 🙂
Wang Da Qing
Hiroko Suzuki, from the Japan Salomon Team
Nerea was really nice and helped me hold my trophy 😉
We’re all GIANTS!

In hindsight? I have a lot of people to thank.
Matt Coops for his calm coaching, visualisation and breathing techniques, they were invaluable during the event with none of the mental fallout I had after UTMB.
My sponsors Hammer Nutrition Singapore and Salomon Singapore for all the nutrition and kit I needed, I am always grateful for their support.
The crew, organisers, volunteers and runners I met all along the way. Everyone was doing their best at all times, and it showed.
Anders The Beast and family and friends from all over who sent messages of support and encouragement, you don’t realise how much one your messages lifted my spirits and pushed me on. I know my family were praying for me to be safe, and there were a lot of times when I was too!
An ultra is a spiritual experience, and my faith is always strengthened when I emerge from these trials unscathed. God did keep me safe, there’s no doubt.
And Steve, who was an absolute angel. Being at every life base and some checkpoints in between, Steve managed to singlehandedly cheer me up, sort me out and keep me going for whole of TDG. And he hadn’t even planned on being there. I’d never planned on having any race support, but I’m so glad he decided to stay. You’re a star, Steve! x

For those who’d consider doing this crazy race, here’s some advice:
1. Arrive a little earlier if you can to acclimatise and get used to the altitude. my 10 days before to catch UTMB was perfect.
2. Stay in the Courmayeur town centre unless you’ve got someone to help with driving and other things. There’s no guarantees you’ll be fit for much after the race!
3. The tourist info office in town by the bus station has some decent maps and info.
4. The tap water is perfectly drinkable and is the best I’ve had anywhere in the world so far!
5. Don’t forget your poles.
6. Don’t underestimate the weather. Bring more than you need as you never know how it’ll all turn out.
7. I took a SAVDA bus from Chamonix to Courmayeur (booked online) but you can also get buses/trains direct from Geneva or Milan.
8. If I did this again I’d plan it like a stage race, so I have enough sleep and will know to bring shower gel and other stuff!
9. The checkpoints have standard European fare – dried apricots, oranges, dark chocolate and biscuits. Some have salami, cheese, pasta and soup. Drinks are usually water (still & sparkling) , tea, coffee and coke. Hot food (potatoes, rice salad, pasta) are available at life bases and some of the larger checkpoints, and it’s all real food – no gels or electrolyte drinks.
10. make sure you have decent waterproof kit including your headlamps (at least 100 lumens recommended), gloves and spare socks.
11. I’m really glad I brought a camera with me even though I was too tired/grumpy/lazy to get may camera out all the time. I bought the waterproof Sony TX30 in metallic fuchsia (stealth is not my middle name) and it was great. Light, easy to use (not so easy with 3 pairs of gloves on) and didn’t need any special attention. Except I attached it to a bungee cord tied to my pack (worried I’d drop it down the side of a cliff) and that meant I could only take selfies and landscape shots .. next time I’ll use a carabiner to attach so I can remove it and ask someone to help me take a decent pic.
12. Have fun!

I’ve learnt so much, had such an amazing time, and realised that it really is all in your head. I’m even thinking about doing it again .. maybe! 😉

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TDG Tappa 6 – Valtournenche to Ollomont (47.2km)

I’m feeling good and hiking up to Barmasse (2175m) at a good speed. Passing a few runners on the way up, the temperature is beginning to drop at the sun starts to set. And I realise I left my spare thermal top in my life base bag … uh oh.
Rifugio Barmasse is further than I’d expected, but I get there in less than 2 hrs so it’s still perfectly light out despite the increasing cold. I’m not sure what to do. It’s too bright out for me to feel tired yet, but the next possible place to sleep is over 11km away (Reboulaz). That’ll take me the better part of 4 hrs at least .. and I didn’t want to be in the cold and dark stumbling ahead trying to stay awake. Plus it’d be a night at over 2500m for the next 25 km or so .. make that VERY cold and dark, then.
There’s a couple of guys in the refreshment room at Barmasse, a nice warm respite from the cold outside. I pour myself some tea and ask for advice. Should I carry on, or get some sleep first? Does anyone know how far the next stop really is?
The German guy sat in the corner reckons I’m better off going as far as I can while it’s still light, and a couple of others agree. Harald (the German guy) looks pretty experienced and all kitted out in thermals and waterproofs. Plus he did TDG last year. Ok. I ask if I could tag along with him and try to keep pace, I’d much rather have some company in the night, and trying to move faster might keep me awake longer. I put all the rest of my layers on, silently berating myself for leaving the thermal top behind, and soon we’re back out into the cold.
Harald proves to be a great companion, he works with an online sports magazine (soq.de), and his English is good enough to keep me sane. We make our way along the trails with a couple of other runners – two guys who look pretty determined. From the profile, I didn’t think that this section would be too bad – no huge climbs – but once again, Mother Nature gives me a kick up the proverbial.
With Harald and the other two guys for company, we’re making good time and as it gets dark, we’ve cleared the first dip and head up towards Fenetre de Tzan (2783m) about 10km from Barmasse. Those tiny squiggles on the profile translate into a strength-sapping series of short, sharp climbs and descents. It’s properly dark now, and my eyes are starting to close. I’m grateful for Harald behind me, and try to concentrate on the guys in front, keeping a steady pace. Just when I’m despairing that I really can’t go on any longer, and have to sleep on the trail, there’s a hut ahead. Surely this is too soon for Tsan? We can’t have been going that quick.
It’s Vareton (2352m). There’s a fire outside and food, and I’m grateful for a cup of hot tea. I hopefully ask about beds, but they’re full for at least another hour. Bugger. I really don’t think I can go on till I get some sleep, I’m SO tired. I tell Harald I’ll probably stop here and wait for a bed, and he says he’ll push on as we’re making good time and he wants to make the most of it while it lasts. He advises me to have some food and see if it revives me to carry on. I’m reluctant to leave the comfort of the group so I do as I’m told. A few minutes later they’re ready to leave again and I follow suit. I’m not any less tired, but would prefer to navigate the trails with company rather than alone. I warn Harald that I’m on the brink of sleep-walking and he promises to look out for me.
Bivacco Reboulaz in the day. Photo: http://bivaccolucareboulaz.weebly.com/foto.html
What follows is forever etched in my memory as The Night From Hell. The 6kms to Bivacco Luca Reboulaz are a blur of ascents and sharp descents on narrow trail, with sheer drops to one side and slippery rocks waiting to trip you up. I’m starting to hallucinate more with the fatigue, and rocks morph into owls that wink at me or grow arms and squeaky voices that shout ‘hi!’ as I stumble past. Harald isn’t faring that much better and we push on till we finally see the lights of Reboulaz. The tiny refuge is chock full of tired runners, and the handful of staff are doing their best to cope. There’s a waiting list on the door for beds on a 2-hour rotation, so I sign us up for a couple of beds. It’s close to midnight now at looks like some beds will be free soon. I really don’t care because I simply cannot keep awake any longer. Together with the biting cold and my missing thermal layer, it really is an exercise in endurance tonight. Falling into a bed, I doze off almost immediately. 
Someone gently taps my foot and I’m reluctantly awake again. Harald, who’s next to me, is trying to get up as well. We both squeeze back into the tiny, crowded main room and take stock. We’re squashed in a corner and it looks like a trauma room with tired faces and broken bodies. Harald and I take our time to refuel on hot soup with salami (me) and cheese (Harald). I’m worried about going out into the cold again and dig in my pack in the hopes I have another warm layer stashed somewhere. At this point I could quite happily give up and go back to sleep. The lovely ladies helping out by the stove in the corner flash me big smiles and tell me to hang in there. At this point I’ve decided that desperate times call for desperate measures. I stand on a bench (there’s no room anywhere else), take off my jacket and fleece, and step into a buff. I have 3 on me so I figure I can use one as a body warmer. The women are amused and intrigued. “A buff??” One looks at the buff around her neck and laughs in disbelief. Good thing I’m small, they say. Okay. Ready or not, we’re off again. 
This time it’s just Harald and I. Biv. Reboulaz is by a small lake and in the dark we cross over on the wet, slippery rocks and into the night. Rifugio Cuney (2656m) is about 5km away, should be achievable in 2hrs or so I thought. Remember those map squiggles? Back with a vengeance. This 5km goes on forever, and some of the trail we’re on is pretty hairy stuff to do in the dark with so much fatigue. I remember tripping over my own feet countless times (thank goodness for poles) with a strong sense of deja vu. Didn’t we already do this bit? Or was that at UTMB? This is really soul-destroying terrain, and whilst I’m trying not to see too much of the sheer drops to my side, Harald’s super powerful headlamp behind me is making sweeping checks of the terrain, which means I get to see all the evil rocks and more waiting to cushion my fall if I decide to fall. We climb for a bit, then start on a steep descent that goes on forever. It’s slippery, sandy switchbacks that seem endless with a ridiculous gradient. The reflective markers show we have miles to go and the refuge is nowhere in sight. It’s all I can do to just keep moving forward, but my despair is building. I dread to think what would happen if anyone fell or got injured here. Who on earth would be able to come get you? My feet are sore and my knees are starting to complain as well, but nothing that is a legitimate reason to stop. Damn.
Behind me, Harald remarks “This is the place that God forgot.” That just summed it up. It felt like we’d been forgotten too. Desolation all around, not even the promise of the refuge lights ahead, and miles to go before we sleep. Then we see them. The lights of Refugio Cuney. It’s not even uplifting at this point because there’s a whole valley to descend and climb before we can get there. One step at a time, nothing for it. 
It’s a quick refuel at Cuney and out again. The 4.5km to Bivacco Clermont is more of the same hell. Along the way, Harald and I both manage to fall into a stream, which seems to lighten my mood a little. I remember this place somehow. The feeling of deja vu is so strong, like I’d struggled through the same despair and desolation in the worst parts of my 2011 UTMB, but maybe this is how my hallucinations are manifesting. I don’t know what is keeping me going, and I’m very grateful for Harald’s company. There are some points when I was really worried I wouldn’t make it out in one piece – my fatigue and propensity for accidents did not make a promising combination. I was stressed about potentially falling off the side of a cliff, but stopping in the cold would’ve been of no use or relief. This night has tested my resolve to breaking point and by the time we reach Bivacco Clermont (2705m), I just squeeze in to the end of the tiny table and hunch over. I don’t want to eat or drink, I’m just relieved to be in a safe place with other people. Harald pats me on the shoulder and says “Thanks.” And I promptly burst into tears. He nods in sympathy. “It was a tough night, huh.”
This should be nothing compared to the night I just had.

It’s very cosy in Biv. Clermont!

Col Vessonaz after the night from hell.

I end up having cheese and coke. The first piece of cheese I’ve had since I started the TDG – I didn’t want to have anything that would make me feel ill (I’m lactose intolerant), but last night was enough of a near miss to make me feel like some cheese was in order. I NEVER want to to this again. There’s no mobile signal so I can’t let Anders or Steve know how I’m doing. Never mind, more cheese will help.

Harald and I drag ourselves out at sunrise, and it feels like a different world. Col Vessonaz (2788m) is 400m out and it should be mostly downhill to Oyace, the next checkpoint. I reach the peak first, suddenly fuelled by all the stress and frustration of the night before. I wait for Harald to get to the top, snap a pic and head down. Harald’s having some issues with his knees so I go on ahead with his blessing.

Harald on Col Vessonaz

It’s turning out to be a glorious day and all the despair of the night before is lost on a gleeful descent. It’s great to get some speed and I pass familiar faces along the way including Kazuko and Franco. The 9.7km to Oyace goes reasonably fast and the small climb to the aid station isn’t too bad. It’s nice to see Steve just I get into the town, and he walks in with me to the checkpoint.

It’s 9.30am and I try to make it a quick turnaround. The Chinese camera crew quiz me again and I manage to fuel up and head out in record time. It’s 12.5km to Ollomont, the next life base, and I’m using that as incentive to push me on. Just over 6km to the top of Col Bruson (2492M) and then it’s down the valley into Ollomont.

Photo: Steve Organ
Photo: Steve Organ
Photo: Steve Organ
Photo: Steve Organ
Photo: Steve Organ
Photo: Steve Organ
Photo: Steve Organ
Coming into Oyace Photo: Steve Organ
Crisps at Oyace. Photo: Steve Organ

I don’t remember much about Oyace to Ollomont, only that it was warm and I’d finished my last packet of Haribo Dragibus. Oh, and I felt my left toenail pop off during one of the descents. That actually took a lot of pressure off my toe, so all good.

Photo: Steve Organ

Coming into Ollomont felt good. It’s 2.25pm and I’m 283.5km into the event. The sunshine’s perked me up and for the first time, it feels like I can think about the reality of finishing. But first I need to get my feet sorted. The doc takes one look at me and tells me to go shower first.

Photo: Steve Organ

Once I’m clean, I’m in the queue to get medical attention – everyone in the line is getting their feet seen to, doesn’t seem to be any other complaints. Dottore finally patches up my feet, straps on two ice packs to my swollen knees and pats me on the back. “See you in Courmayeur.” With 49km to go, this is the home stretch.

Getting my feet seen to. Photo: Sho Fujimaki
Patched up! Photo: Steve Organ
Signing out. Photo: Steve Organ
Photo: Steve Organ
Photo: Steve Organ

As usual, Steve is an absolute star, and patiently makes sure I have everything I need and more. After two plates of food, a shower, lots of Betadine and surgical tape, two new sets of headlamp batteries and all my warm clothes, I’m ready to head out again. I’ve spent 2h 20 mins in the life base .. could’ve been worse, I guess. And off we go. Next stop, Courmayeur!

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Tor Des Geants Section 5 – Gressoney to Valtournenche (36km)

Right then. It’s midnight going into Thursday 12th September, and I’ve been on the go for the better part of 86 hours. Leaving the Gressoney life base, it’s reasonably flat and I’m moving at a determined jog towards Rifugio Alpenzu where I’m planning to get some sleep. My hamstring seems to have eased off and my feet still hurt, but that’s old news now. I’m feeling energised from the earlier stop, and march through relatively flat roads and through a town. 7km to Alpenzu, shouldn’t take long. I make good progress, even up the short, steep incline, and arrive at the refuge freezing and desperate for some shut-eye. I’m ushered to a dorm with one other person already in there. The man tells me that the cut-off at Gressoney was at 1am, and whilst I wanted to have 2 hours sleep, I may only be allowed 1 hour if the place fills up from the stragglers at Gressoney. Whatever. Just give me a bed please.

Buff over my eyes, I’m sleeping lightly till a tap on my shoulder. “Time to get up.”

WHAT?? My watch says it’s been an hour. I feel indignantly bereft, especially seeing no one new has entered the dorm since I got there. I haven’t got the energy to argue in a different language, so I trudge back downstairs in a grump. it’s nearly 3am. I see Barry and Shuwen downstairs, hunched over tables trying to sleep. I find a chair, pull down my buff and try to reclaim my lost sleep for another hour.

I wake after 30 mins or so and start getting my head in order. I know it’s freezing outside but I really need to get a move on. A quick check of the map profile shows the only way is up. It’s no surprise by now, and I suit up and head out. It’s about 5km to the summit, Col Pinter at 2776m. It’s REALLY cold outside and darker than I’ve experienced so far. The climb is crazy steep and at first I’m quite happy focusing on being a moderate hiker with a rucksack, but after an hour or so it starts to get a little eerie .. super quiet in the freezing cold with no other headlamps in sight. Ok, not so much fun anymore .. where is the top? Just keep moving forward, just keep moving forward …

Finally I get to the summit, and whilst it’s still dark, the sun should be making an appearance soon and that helps with the cold and fatigue. The descent is very steep and very technical, slippy in most places from ice that’s formed overnight. I’m descending with caution given my track record for misadventure, and am caught by a runner near the end of the descent. His name is Emanuele, recently moved to Aosta and a veritable font of information on the area. I did listen, but it was hard to take it all in with my tired brain although I did enjoy his company. We made a stop at Rifugio L’Aroula, where the restaurant had opened specially for TDG runners and was serving lovely hot food and drink. (Think this was part 1 of Matt Meckenstock’s legendary double-lunch day in TDG 2012!)

Moving on, a quick stop at Rifugio Crest to refill and we’re off again. It’s 8.30am now and looking like it’s going to be a gorgeous day. This time Makoto (the Japanese sherpa with the massive bag) and Miyuki, another Japanese runner, catch up to us before long. I’m feeling the fatigue and everyone else seems strong on the climbs, and even better on the descents. I’ve got Hoka envy again! Everyone powers on ahead and I’m trailing behind, getting grumpier as it gets hotter and they get further away.  Grrr. My feet are super sore again too.

I reach the time checkpoint at St Jacques at 10.37am. I faff around for too long taking layers off in preparation for the climb ahead. Somehow everyone catches up at the same time and we take an ‘Asia contingent’ photo for the record.

Team Asia – Shuwen, me, Barry, Akemi (kneeling), unidentified Japanese runner, Makoto, Miyuki. Photo: Wang Bo

And then we’re off again and somehow I’m one of the last to leave. Emanuele catches up – he’d had an earlier pit-stop where his wife and friend met him along the descent with some supplies and a fresh pair of shoes (Emanuele now has Hokas!). He tells me to try and stick with them – his wife and friend (ski instructor and strong climber) and hiking up to Grand Tournalin (2535m) with us and I do my best. They’re all wearing Hokas and I’m focusing on keeping pace with all three pairs of those damn marshmallow shoes. Not long after, I find my own pace and move ahead. I meet Wang Bo, one of the Chinese photographers, on the way up and we reach the stop at Grand Tournalin together.

Above photos: Wang Bo
There’s a young man outside the refuge ringing another massive set of bells – I didn’t get a picture because I was freezing and just wanted to get inside out of the cold. There’s a table of Japanese and a table of Chinese runners, then Emanuele and his supporters turn up as well. We’re all tucking in to the spread that’s laid out, and the fresh fruit salad here is a welcome change to all the bars and salami I’ve had so far. Fed, watered and warm everyone heads out and I’m a little behind trying to get more wam clothes on. There’s a bit more climbing to Col di Nana (2770m) (saying that makes me giggle everytime!), a smaller climb to Col des Fontaines and then downhill to Valtournenche, the next life base. About 6km, which is a very welcome thought.
I’m fired up after the rest at Grand Tournalin, and want to catch the Asian runners ahead. I’m climbing like a mountain goat on a mission, well, that’s what I felt it was like .. in reality it probably looked like granny’s day out. But still. I felt good, and I was passing everyone in sight. Yay! Once at the top, I started jogging down and then decided to let fly. I must’ve had too much coke at Grand Tournalin because I was giggling like a pixie and running the descent like it was the finish line ahead. By now I’ve passed another 6 or so people including all the Asian runners, some of whom tell me to be careful, others try to follow. It feels so good to get some speed on, I’m flying over rocks and trail, only half aware that it could go very wrong if I had a mis-step. As the descent evened out, I stopped to take some pictures and savour the moment. It was nice to feel like I could cruise for a bit, my brain has been working overtime since we started. And very grateful to my poles for keeping me upright all this way.
Franco descends towards Col di Fontaines 
Quick pic while I’m feeling good going down from Col di Nana
Looking back on Col di Nana (hee hee)
China, Hong Kong, Italy, Singapore and Japan, represent. (and Franco in the corner taking a breather)

The trail gets much more technical further down, and I slow a little for caution’s sake and let the others catch up .. it’d be nice to enjoy the company while I can, even if it means I have to practice my Mandarin. The sun is shining, I don’t care how much my feet and knees hurt, and I’m into Valtournenche at 3.30pm, bonus. The time cutoff there is 9pm, so I just have to focus and not waste too much time. Steve met me at about 1km out, and it was such a boost to anticipate when I’d see him. It also gave me a chance to stop talking to myself and talk to a real person in English without having to simplify anything to get over the language barriers. Hello Steve!! 🙂

Steve hiked up from Valtournenche on the trail, this is where we ran down. Photo credit: Steve Organ
Through the cobbled streets to the life base. Photo credit: Steve Organ

Photo credit: Steve Organ
happy to be here! Photo credit: Steve Organ
Inside the life base food tent. Photo credit: Steve Organ

I’m in really good spirits now and eat a pile of food while Steve refills my pack with water, crisps, Snickers and batteries. He’s even dried off my wet clothes (I’d washed them at Donnas) and so I have clean clothes!! (Note to self – it’s a good idea to bring lots of spares .. two tops isn’t going to last a 6-day race) I wander off to have a shower in the sports hall behind, and decide to get my feet re-taped. I’m seen to by both the doctor and the podiatrist, who roll their eyes and do their best. I get sent on my way nearly an hour later with blisters drained, taped feet, and my extra special ice-pack knee pads.

Showered, taped, iced and ready for action! Photo credit: Steve Organ
Yup, freeflow beer and wine at all life bases and most water points! Photo credit: Steve Organ
I get back to Steve who’s now chilling with a beer (envious!) and try to get my act together to head out. To my credit, I only take 2h 20 mins this time to get out of the life base .. not fast but better than before!

Checking out. Photo credit: Steve Organ
Wang Bo, one of the photographer/videographers with the China Technica team .. Photo credit: Steve Organ

The sun’s still shining, it’s a 5km climb to Rifugio Barmasse, and I’m feeling good. I leave valtournenche at 5.45pm, guessing it’ll take me 2 hours to get to Barmasse, maybe a good time for a quick kip if it’s dark. Onward!

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Tor Des Geants Section 4 – Donnas to Gressoney (51.6 km)

From Donnas there’s some short sharp climbing to Perloz, then a big climb to Rifugio Coda (2224m) and up around 2000m altitude for a long stretch before a descent to Gressoney St Jean. It’s flat-ish and on road out of Donnas, and I’m on a mission to make up the time I wasted at the life base. I’m moving at a determined pace, and catch up with two Italians just as we get to Pont Saint-Martin about 2km away. Steve’s already there, having driven up to find that the town had set up an unofficial rest stop to greet the TDG runners. Paella, wine, beer and very happy volunteers all greet us, together with the devil himself.

Legend has it that the bishop made a deal with the devil to build the bridge in a single night so that people could cross over, and promised him the soul of the first living creature that passed over it. Turns out it was a dog, and the devil was pretty angry about that!

Photo credit: Steve Organ
Devil on my shoulder Photo credit: Steve Organ
Paella anyone? Photo credit: Steve Organ
The bridge the devil built

 From Pont Saint-Martin to Perloz was quite interesting. I had the two Italians for company most of the way and whilst I’ve forgotten their names, they were neighbours who’d decided to do this together. One of them was full of information on the history of the area we were going through, steeply winding cobbled paths that used to be the original town roads. We passed under wooden framework where grape vines grew, designed around stone structures to make the most of the heat from the day. I even got to try one of the grapes – sweet, tart and quite refreshing! The Italians are climbing strong and steady, and whilst I try to keep up I end up losing them and I’m on my own again not long after. It’s just over a 5km climb to Perloz, and when I finally get there there’s a chap with the biggest set of bells I’ve ever seen clanging away for all he’s worth. It’s a hilariously surreal moment and I’m wondering what the neighbours must be thinking! Amazing local dried beef, some sparkling water, and I’m off again.

The route takes us out of the town and along a steep rocky trail that doesn’t feel too harsh underfoot. Coupled with my shoe change to the Salomon XT6, dry socks and a change of clothing, I’m feeling halfway human and in good spirits. It’s funny how fast things can change.

The cold, dark and accumulated fatigue starts making itself felt again soon after leaving the bell-ringing clamour at Perloz. It’s about 7km uphill to the next time check at Etoile du Berger (Sassa), all of which is spent fighting to keep my eyes open. All I remember is tripping over my feet a lot, and desperately hoping the rest stop would appear soon. When I finally get there it’s 2am, all I can manage is to sit on a bench in front of the timing table, pull my buff over my eyes and ask the volunteers to wake me in 20 minutes. They tell me there are beds, but I really want to try to get to Coda before I sleep, another 5km climbing away. Plus I have time to make up and cut-offs to chase now.

My 20mins rest outside in the cold actually does me some good and I shake off the fatigue and plow on up the mountain. It’ll take me the better part of 2hrs to get to Coda and I don’t know what sort of terrain awaits. And so the nightmare begins.

It’s a mix of field, road and trail on the way up, and I pass a few sleep-deprived runners including Kazuko. She wants to chat but I’m doing everything I can to keep my rhythm (including regular breaths and muttering to myself – “moderate hiker with a rucksack”) so it’s difficult to answer back and soon I’ve left her behind. I feel bad about that, but the terrain isn’t too bad apart from being steep so she should have no problems in the dark.

And then the rocks appear. In the dark, it’s hard to make out the yellow markings that show the Alta Via trail, and the TDG flags are few and far between along here. I make some of it up as I go along, scanning the terrain for reflective markers, grateful that my Black Diamond Storm headlamp gives a decent beam. By now it’s cold and the wind is picking up, and the terrain starts to feel very tricky. It seems to be a massive rock field, slippery in parts where there’s a stream or run-off from the top. I’ve slipped several times now, and one bit has rope installed to navigate a sheer, smooth rockface. I slip again and manage to jump across to a flatter rock, but yank my left hamstring in the process. I have to sit for a bit to recover, this one didn’t feel too good. But it’s getting colder and windier so sitting isn’t very appealing after all and I get moving again. I’m getting worried for Kazuko too, hoping she’s closer behind me than I thought. If I’ve had trouble so far, there’s no doubt she’d struggle too. But then again, she had the magic Hokas.

I didn’t think I’d have a harder time than my first night at TDG, but this was much worse. I was walking like a drunk person, stumbling, weaving, could barely keep my eyes open and freezing to boot. I was feeling truly miserable, hoping against all odds I could make it to Coda by 3.50am. That was 17km in 7 hours, about right for what I’d been averaging so far.

Fat chance.

By the time I got to the plateau at about 2200m, I’d already thought up half a dozen reasons to DNF, starting with hypothermia, being eaten by marmots and ending with being head-butted off the mountain by a chamois. My blistered feet were agonisingly painful with each step and I’d resorted to concentrating my headlamp just in front of my feet, repeating ‘just one more step, just keep moving forward’. I thought the refuge wouldn’t be too far away once I’d reached the plateau, but I was learning that nothing is going to be ever that simple in this event! There was no shelter at the top, and I was mercilessly buffeted by a freezing wind and praying I wouldn’t get blown off the edge. WHERE THE **** IS THAT DAMN REFUGE?? It got to a point where I was begging for this to be over. Lightning was flashing dramatically in the night sky and I’m resigned to my fate. I’m dragging my left leg now, certain I’ve torn the hamstring, every step feels like my feet are on fire, and I’m ready to DNF at Coda. At the rate I was going there’d be no chance of making the next cut off at Largo Vagno anyway. I just wanted to get out of this wind and cold, get some sleep and put an end to my misery. 3.50am had come and gone, and I still couldn’t see the Rifugio lights.

And then there they were.

The word ‘refuge’ has never held so much significance before. I nearly cried when I saw it, and there was a man standing out on the porch ringing a bell to greet me. When I finally stumbled up to him, he led me inside and I’m surrounded by weather-beaten old men with volunteer t-shirts on. One (twinkly eyes and a kind smile) of the makes me his priority, and I get 2 cups of lemon tea with 4 sugars, my poles are gently prised out of my hands and put under the table out of the way. He makes sure I don’t want anything else, but stays close, checking on all the other runners in the room. It’s quite crowded, but all I can remember is staring into thin air and wondering how on earth I’m going to continue. I need to sleep. I send The Beast a message, I can see he’s worried about where I am. Hopefully he’ll relay that to Steve – I have no energy to worry about communications now.

Traversing along the ridge that went on forever to Coda, not fun on a cold, wet and windy night! Photo credit: Jill Homer
Rifugio Coda in the day. Photo credit: Climbandtrek.it
Inside Coda. Photo credit: Moses Lovstad
Next stop Largo Vagno. Photo credit: F Ceragioli

I ask for a bed and am shown into the next room, and given a dorm with four empty bunk beds. Twinkly Eyes just about tucks me in – I’m wearing everything I have on except my shoes – and whispers that he’ll wake me up at 7am. I got to Coda at 5am – way off target.

I peel my buff off my eyes to check on the time .. it’s 7.20am! Twinkly Eyes didn’t wake me and sunlight is streaming through the window now. I’m panicking, worrying about looming cut-off times and what my hamstring and feet are going to feel like. Shoes on, bleary-eyed, walking back into the main room and I’m greeted by Twinkly Eyes who says something in Italian that sounds like “Ah, you’re awake!” .. and did he just WINK at me??? Letting me sleep an extra 20 minutes was not what i’d wanted!

Poles retrieved, 3 pairs of gloves back on and all my layers done up, no more tea, thanks – I’m out the door amidst cheers from the smiley old men that run Rifugio Coda. Twinkly Eyes gave me a big hug before I left and shouted “A Courmayeur!”. Guess that means he thought I’d make it … or he was just trying to make me feel better. It’s 7.45am. I’d targeted Largo Vagno, the next stop 6.5km away for 6.20am, no way that was happening then! Even if I added 2h for the sleep break I’d brought forward, it was still way off.

But as I start off on the trail again, I realise my feet and hamstring don’t hurt. I pick up my pace and soon I’m hurtling down the mountain in hopes of making up some time. What on earth was in that tea?? Obviously Twinkly Eyes and Co were actually elves who’d worked their magic so that I could continue. He DID wink at me after all!

The cutoff at Largo Vagno is 12pm. I have 4hrs to cover 6.5km, doable but not knowing what the terrain ahead is like is a big handicap. There’s a climb and another small descent before LV, and I get there at 9.30am. I made good time. not exactly flying, but I’ll take it. Hamstring and feet still feeling ok, with the pain starting to creep back in. Should’ve had another cup of magic tea from Twinkly Eyes before I left Coda!

I don’t even notice the lake. Barry from HK is at the time check desk and gets ushered into the main building when he asks for tea. I stay outside for a few more minutes, drink some coke and head off again.

I’m starting to flag and finding it hard to keep a consistent pace now. The pain in my hamstring and feet is starting to creep back into my consciousness at an alarming rate, and the runner I can see ahead in the flouro orange top is starting to get smaller and smaller. Climbing 4km to Col du Marmontana (2350m) is an exercise in endurance and pain management. The trail is increasingly uncomfortable, not steep, but technical, rocky and narrow in the most annoying places, making it hard for me to find a rhythm. The 1km descent to Lago Chiaro was down boulder fields and technical scree. The sun was out in full force now, and I could see the lake ahead, next to it was a small perspex aid station with a few runners sat down outside and a herd of cows on the other side of the lake. It looked idyllic if it weren’t for the fact that I’d been going for 3 days with less than 4 hrs sleep. When I finally got there I collapsed in a chair with a cup of coke, glad to take the weight off my feet. The utilitarian aid station had a large hunk of roast beef being sliced,  which tasted heavenly to me there and then! It did feel a bit strange devouring medium rare roast beef with the cows mere metres away clanging their bells. I had some meat in some kind of jelly that came out of a tin .. not the most appetising of descriptions, but the salty taste and texture were just what I needed. I have to drag myself away from this aid station, but I’d rather die trying to make the cut-offs than do nothing about it. On your feet, off you go.

Lago Chiaro aid station in TDG 2010. Lake is to the right, out of frame. Photo credit: Chrrrris

The climb to Crenna Dou Leui (2340m) is more of the same misery. Translated as “cleft of the wolf” this was the backdrop for some dramatic images I’d seen of TDG previously. When I realised I’d arrived, I made the effort to get my camera out and snap some pics, but the reality was I would’ve been quite happy to call it a day there and then. By now I’m convinced my hamstring is busted, my feet feel like raw meat, and I’m really worried I won’t make the cut-offs with how much I’ve slowed down again. I have been trying to remember to take in the views and take some pics as well .. and at some level I do feel very blessed with be surround by such beautiful mountains all the time, but I’ll appreciate them later when I’m done. For now, my brain can’t handle much more than relentless forward progress.

One false step … it’s a steep drop off the side of the trail! 
“Cleft of the Wolf”

And this is what I see on the other side of the cleft.
My heart sinks when I get to the cleft and look over the edge. It’s a steep descent that looks to go on forever over more scree and boulder fields. I really don’t want to do this anymore.
But I have to. No one is going to come get me if I stop. I’d have to go back the way I came, or go forward. There’s nothing life threatening and everyone else is suffering too. Suck it up, Fatburd. I’m limping over the boulders and I don’t remember much about this bit apart from it being very painful, sunny, and a man stretched out on a rock sleeping with his pack under his head. Looked like a great place to stop for a picnic, but if I did, I’d never start again. I have to finish. I never want to come back to do this again. Up to Col Della Vecchia (2184m) and down again towards Niel. ‘Moderate hiker with a rucksack’ is long gone by now. All I can manage is ‘one step at a time, just keep moving forward’.

Amazing views. Photo credit: Steve Organ
Photo credit: Steve Organ
Photo credit: Steve Organ

I’ve been going forever, passed by a few runners, all of whom look pretty wasted, but moving steady nonetheless. Rounding a corner, there’s another perspex aid hut. I stop just so my feet can have a rest, fill up with water and coke, and then a whole group of runners appear. Barry and Shu Wen (from China Technica) also arrive, greetings, commiserations, status checks. We’re all struggling in our own way, but the general consensus is there’s no other way but forward. I head off first and the boys follow soon after with a Technica support crew who was waiting at the rest stop.

50m on and my whole day changes for the better. It’s Steve! He’s hiked backwards from Niel to get some fresh air and see if he can find me. My spirits are lifted no end at seeing a familiar face, and whilst he gives me my stats and worries about my cut-offs, I tell him about Twinkly Eyes, the elves and the magic tea. And the roast beef, the evil rocks and the fact that my leg is about to fall off because my hamstring won’t hold it together anymore. I don’t think he really believes me, but pretends to anyway. 🙂

Found me at last! Photo credit: Steve Organ
Photo credit: Steve Organ

It takes longer than expected to get to Niel, and we stop along the way to try taping my hamstring with the bandage in my mandatory gear. It doesn’t feel like it’s doing anything apart from cutting off circulation (I did re-adjust it), and by the time we get to Niel, it’s no better and things are not looking good for my finish. it’s 5.05pm and the next life base 13.5km away at Gressoney has a time barrier of 1am. I’m 5 hours behind schedule now.

Photo credit: Steve Organ
Fake Facebook smile at Niel. Photo credit: Steve Organ
Up towards Col Lasoney. Photo credit: Steve Organ

I’m out of Niel in record time, eating a Snickers bar and crisps on the climb out to save time. The climb up is torturously slow, my hamstring feels worse by the minute and I get passed by a dozen people before I’m even halfway up. I’m wondering if I’ll get to the top in daylight, 3.5 km feels like a marathon. I’m trying to keep pace with the last guy who passes me, he says he thinks we’re the last but hasn’t seen the sweeper yet. Last?? This is really not looking good at all.

The cold starts to set in now and as usual the top looks deceptively attainable, only to find there’s a long way round. Which is the TDG route, naturally. I’ve resigned myself to the fact that the cut-off at Gressoney is probably gone, but I’ll just keep going till I get there. Or till my leg falls off. Whichever comes first. Finally over the top, its a 10km descent to Gressoney. Headlamp out, game face on, and I try to pick up some speed. Have to keep reminding myself that the pain is the same regardless of my speed. Just keep going! I’m playing catch up with a small group of Spaniards who are rather rude and noisy (I have no patience left), and the last Italian chap who passed me going up Col Lasoney.

It’s back to rolling field and moor-like terrain, narrow trails amongst trippy tufts of prickly shrubbery. We pass a farm where I get chased by a goat (couldn’t run so I threatened to poke it with my poles), greeted by the farmer’s wife and dodge numerous cow pats. And then Ober Loo appears. I didn’t realise there’d be a stop before Gressoney, and I’m gratefully refilling my soft flasks and scoffing salami. There’s hunks of cheese that look so tempting, but I’m doing my best to keep my stomach settled, so I abstain reluctantly. Off into the night again, more people seem to have caught up with us and I can’t shake the noisy Spaniards. We’re running down along a river, the trail is rocky with wide steps, making it awkward to judge my stride. My hamstring is killing me, and my feet are fighting to push my pain threshold beyond it’s limit. Right now I’d kill for Hokas.

Just. Keep. Moving. Forward.

I realise I’m able to block out the pain and move a little quicker on the descents,maybe I won’t miss the cut-off after all!

And there he is again. Steve magically appears on the trail (meaning I must be close or he’s been hiking for ages) and gives me a much needed boost. Not far to Gressoney, much more bearable with a friend by your side. A French runner had her friend with her since Ober Loo (yes, I was envious!) and the Spaniards were noisy, but they’d had each other for company. Support crew and pacers have taken on a whole new importance in my books since Steve started helping me! We get into Gressoney at 10.16pm. 3 hours to the cut-off. Not a great buffer, but it’ll do. It also dawns on me that I’ve made it to the 200km mark, further than I’ve ever gone before. And at 84 hrs, much longer too.

Sports Hall at Gressoney in the day. Photo credit: Steve Organ
That’s what I can look forward to next! Photo credit: Steve Organ
Photo credit: Steve Organ
Found the mystery jelly meat!
Photo credit: Steve Organ

I have a quick shower, a stack of food, try to find a medic to help tape my feet, and realise that my left knee is twice the size of the right one. Not good.

Getting my feet fixed. Photo credit: Steve Organ

With Steve’s help to refill, refuel, and replace batteries, food, dry buffs and other bits of clothing from my drop bag, I try to make this a quick stop. It takes ages to get my feet sorted, and there’s no physio, doctor or podiatrist at this life base so I make do with a massage from the therapist for my hamstring. He shakes his head at my knees, but has undoubtedly seen worse over the course of the day so says nothing. the life base looks like a war zone, friends and family anxiously waiting for the runners, others already in limping around or sat with somewhat haunted looks on their faces. 

There are notices taped to each table with a weather warning – it’ll be very cold tonight so wrap up warm. I put on everything I have, the volunteers check that I’ve read the weather warning, and bleep me out. It’s 11.54pm, I’ve spent nearly 2 hours at the life base and closer to the cut-off than I’ve ever been. The plan is to get to Rifugio Alpenzu 7km away and get some sleep. One step at a time, there’s still over 130km to go.
Out of Gressoney. Photo credit: Steve Organ
Alta Via trail markings. Photo credit: Steve Organ
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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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TDG part 2 – Valgrisenche to Cogne (53.53km)

Section 2 towards Cogne Base Vita ..

Three mountains before the next Base Vita
Leaving Valgrisenche, it’s just gone 3am and I have an 8km climb to get to the refuge I’m planning to sleep at. It’s about 800m altitude gain, so about 100m D+ per km .. that works out to what .. 8 times Bukit Timah Hill? I estimated it’ll take just under 4 hrs to do that, so I should be tucked in by 7.30am all being well. Excellent. The climb is cold and dark, and not very much fun at all. There’s no one near me at all, and I’m guessing most have slept and gone one or are still at the first life base. I’m guessing I’m quite far back in the pack now with everything that happened yesterday. Not that I’m particularly bothered .. survival mode kicked race mode out of the water pretty early on, and all I can think of now is a warm place and a bit of sleep.

My wet feet in my wet shoes and wet socks are freezing. Wish I’d changed my socks now.

The warm lights of Chalet l’Epée are a very welcome sight, I’m so ready to sleep now! I’d taken just over 3 hrs to get there, and I stumble into the small refuge to ask for a bed. Then I’m told that there are no beds and the next closest place I can sleep is Eaux Rosses .. which happens to be 13KM AND 2 MOUNTAINS AWAY. This really is a WTF moment. That’s nearly enough to make me give up there and then.

I look like I felt. No room at the inn.
I’m offered a cup of tea instead, which I politely decline. I sit down in a quiet corner and notice that there are runners sleeping on benches and chairs regardless. But I want some quality sleep! Instead I lean against a pillar, take my still-wet shoes and socks off in hopes that they’ll dry a little (feet still freezing), and pull my buff over my eyes.  I open my eyes 30 minutes later to find the place is a little more packed with runners coming in and I take more time to pull myself together, have some Haribo Dragibus (I ditched Perpetuem after Valgrisenche, it was becoming too thick in the cold), wrap up warm and head out again.  

And suddenly it’s a different world outside.

The sunrise has just begun and I don’t need my headlamp anymore. It’s still freezing, but the climb to Col Fenetre (2854m) feels infinitely better in daylight, and it lifts my spirits no end. I can see the sunrise teasing the tops of the mountain ranges in front of me, warming the horizon and I’m energised with the increasing light. Time to bag another peak!

Sunrise #1, from Col Fenetre.
Col Fenetre descent
The descent is much warmer and a runner I pass along the way points to the other side of the valley. I don’t understand what he says and can’t see what he’s pointing at, and then I do. One pair of ibex horns poking out from behind a rock, then another, and another. Another 100m down the trail and I see the whole herd grazing, a truly magnificent sight!

Spot the ibex
See any horns?
The whole herd is there!

I’m running down the descent now but it seems to go on forever. Have to watch where I step as its all rocky and uneven, but it’s 3kms downhill and I’m trying to make the most of it. The last bit is steep switchbacks and I’m suddenly onto a sunny road and and headed into Rhemes Notre Dame.
Sunshiny morning!
9.30am – been going for nearly 24 hours now! There’s a little pitstop at Rhemes where I refuelled, and got ready to tackle the next climb. At this point, I can’t remember if I saw Steve or not .. probably not, just remember being delighted to be running in the sunshine again!
Off out of Rhemes towards Col Entrelor (3002m). You’re either going up or down in this race!
By this point I’ve already cocked up trying to do split laps on the TD6 I’m wearing, and because of my stops my average time looks like I’ve been moving backwards .. and I managed to lose an hour on the timer somewhere along the way. I think it’s because my fingers were so clumsy in my 3 pairs of gloves (yes, 3!) that I accidentally pressed buttons I shouldn’t have. Ah well. they really should make a Garmin that doesn’t have a limited battery life .. or at least one that’ll last a week on record! my original plan was a 12.10pm ETA at Rhemes, so I still have a decent buffer on my own plan, yay!
Top of the Col (Entrelor) with Lawrence from Melbourne
The climb up was steady, not great fun but my mantra was fast becoming “moderate hiker with a rucksack” .. the general speed I’d estimated my times on from the Alta Via routes. I make some new friends along the way (all of whom pass me!) including Lawrence from Australia, who’s climbing strong and steady. Everyone’s in their own world of pain / pleasure / mental games and I’m absolutely delighted to reach the top after about 5.5km. My photos are somewhat limited as I’d tied my camera to my pack in case I dropped it down the cliff, which also meant I couldn’t ask anyone to take a pic of my since the bungee cord was only as long as my arm.
The other side of Entrelor .. follow the little yellow flags!

 There’s what looks like a yellow henbox on the other side of the peak, it’s been helicoptered there a few days ago, housing a control point volunteer and some supplies. Quick top up and I’m off downhill. I like it when gravity works in my favour! I have Lawrence for company most of the way down, which was really very nice for a change, someone who speaks English as a first language! He was meant to be doing TDG with his wife (it was her idea), but she’d lucked out on the lottery so he’d gone solo instead.

That’s part of where we descended .. again!
Panoramic view on the way down to Eaux Rousses and a bit of flat at last!

There’s pleasant conversation all the way down and it’s 3.44pm we finally get to the control point at Eaux Rousses (1654m), 9.5km later, and the coke, water and salami I have there are very welcome. My planned arrival was 6.35pm, so more bonus points there! The heat is quite sapping. In the tent eating and regrouping, and I’m doing the same. It’s hard to think about moving fast, we’ve only just got down a peak and the next one is the highest in the course. Col Loson at 3299m, a 10.7km climb. No rest for the wicked. Some people in the tent are talking about getting up to the top and halfway down before it gets too dark, apparently there’s a pretty sketchy bit just after the top that shouldn’t be done in the dark, ideally. Not again!

Steve’s there when I come out of the tent, surprise! He gives me a pep talk, tries to make sense of my ramblings, and sends me on my way.

Going up to Loson

The climb sucks big time. It’s really hot now and I stop to take stuff off, only to have to put them on again later. I pass a French couple who stop to rest and relay the warning about trying to get past Loson before dark. Wang Da Qing, the Technica China chap from last night’s adventure passes me early on, relaying the news that the man from the accident didn’t survive. I’m reeling a little from this .. I think I’d convinced myself he would be ok. Feeling rather dazed and I don’t really know what to think. Just keep moving forward! Actually I can’t remember is this was before Entrelor or Loson, but I do remember him trying to teach me some climbing techniques .. not useful when I didn’t have the legs for it!

Runners are dotted all along the climb and it goes on FOREVER. I’m reminded of UTMB again, I really do suck at climbing. It’s getting to a point where I’m pretty sure I’m never going to get to the top, I’ve resorted to just looking at my feet and 6m ahead, so I don’t have to see how much farther I have to go. Suddenly I take another step and it’s not going UP anymore. Ican’tbelieveI’mfinallyatthetop! The added bonus is that it’s still light, and I’m descending cautiously as the guys weren’t kidding! There’s some sketchy bits with narrow widths, sheer drops and ropes on the cliffside. Steady on.

It’s dark again and I’m so tired I can’t see straight. The descent to the Rifugio Vittoria Sella is.4.35km, but takes forever on steep bits with stone gulleys to guide the water coming down from the top. Best tripping chances I’ve had all day! All 723 of them.

By the time I stumble into Sella, it’s freezing again and the warm lights of the refuge are very comforting. I’m desperate for a bed, but see Wang Da Qing and Lawrence in the refuge as I come in. The former is suffering from stomach upset so I offer some Dhamotil, and Lawrence is getting ready to head out again. Hot broth is amazing and the volunteers show me an empty bed and promise to come back to wake me in 2hrs. It felt like 2 minutes, but at least it was warm and comfortable. Its really hard to get going again, but it’s either get out into the cold or not at all. 8km downhill, here we go.

I’m alone all the way down, and it’s just before 3am when I get to the bottom of where I thought Cogne was. No such luck! I’m in Valtontey and it’s another 30 mins before I get to Cogne, with a very gratefully received Steve meeting me at a carpark halfway along. Once in the life base at Cogne, I’m quizzed by the China filmcrew waiting for the Technica team. Wang Da Qing hasn’t turned up yet – didn’t he leave Sella before I did? I answer as best I can, slightly annoyed with the camera in my face and my broken Chinese. I just want to eat and get fresh batteries for my headlamp.

Decent hot food, nearly an hour at Cogne goes by before I’m ushered out by Steve. 17km to the top of the next mountain, sore feet but too cold to take anything off for an inspection, didn’t even manage to brush my teeth! 🙁

Made it past 100km at last! 🙂
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Tor Des Geants Part 1 – Courmayeur to Valgrisenche (48.6km)

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.