Thursday, February 6, 2014


Courmayeur, Italy  September 2013

Finally some time to put a race report together.  Let’s see what I can remember.  An 8 hour delay flying last weekend as I headed off to a race in Arizona  gives a wonderful opportunity to catch up.  Upon return to the states after the Tor I was overwhelmed with work as I got immediately thrown into XC season with the high school team, worked on plans to build a house, did site work on the lot to prepare for the home and was and still am the general contractor, working on the new house which was delivered from Huntington Homes on December 10, 2014.  With a toilet in place, Kristin and I moved in on Christmas Eve.  Still plenty to do but we'll get there.


The Tor des Géants is the first and only race to combine long distance with the individual style of runners: the organization does not impose any compulsory stages, and the winner will be the runner who completes the race in the shortest time, making his or her own decisions on when and how long to stop for rest and refreshment.  The Tor des Géants is the first race of this kind to cover an entire region, running along its spectacular paths at the foot of the highest Four-Thousanders in the Alps and through the Gran Paradiso Natural Park and the Mont Avic Regional Park. The start and the finish are in Courmayeur. The total length of the race is 336 km which must be completed with a maximum time of 150 hours. The race includes several stretches at high altitude, including 25 mountain passes over 2000 meters, 30 alpine lakes and 2 natural parks. The minimum altitude is 300 m and the highest is 3300 m. The total elevation gain is about 24000 m.  The conditions can be very difficult (running in the dark, wind, cold, rain or snow). Proper training and a real ability to be self-sufficient are essential for successfully completing this individual adventure. 

Tor Des Geants Race Report 2013

Alpine Meadows

The Tor Des Geants turned out to be an experience of a lifetime.  It was everything I thought it would be and then some.  From the very start it created challenges and never let up.  The night prior to the race the weather report was looking rather dismal, rain and more rain.  The race didn't start until 10:00 AM which allowed for a normal night of sleep.  Except all I could hear was the pouring rain which made for a restless night.  As dawn broke the rain let up.  Overcast skies would be great!  After breakfast Kristin and I got our gear together, dressed for the worst and headed out to the start which is right in the middle of Courmayeur.  No sooner did we get almost to the finish line and the rain started again.  It was just miserable, 50 degrees and rain.  As we waiting in line to get scanned before you could even get in the start coral, you could already feel the moisture on your skin.  

The Start Line

It was almost start time so if we started to move, at least that would be better than just standing there getting wet.  No such luck.  10:00 am was the start of the festivities which included anthems and other Italian songs to which we sang for a good 30 minutes.  Finally we were off!!  I decided to start the race with Kristin, more in the back of the pack instead of making my way up near the start line like I did at UTMB.  She was feeling a bit nervous and had never seen mountains like this.  Plus this was also our honeymoon.  Yes we got married days before getting on the plane to Italy.  So I thought I should at least spend a little time with my new wife :)  

The start was slow but manageable, packed in with over 700 runners in the pouring rain on the narrow streets of Courmayeur.  We meandered through town a bit, crossed the road and through more narrow streets going through puddles already, so much for keeping the feet dry.  After a mile or so we finally hit the trails.  And then we stopped.  700+ runners all hitting a steep single track trail together doesn't work much for keeping any forward momentum.  Soon we were moving at a snail’s pace.  

Wow I thought, this is going to be a long, slow race or rather event.  We continued in this conga line for quite some time.  At one point I thought I might have the opportunity to gain some ground and start passing other runners.  I said my goodbyes to Kristin, telling her I would see her later that week, so much for the honeymoon.  But we would have a week after the race to relax and enjoy Italy together.  And off I went passing one by one, for about a minute, then the congo line again with tight single track.  So it was, it was not to be a fast pace and maybe the forced slow pace would be good in the end.  I was a bit nervous myself about the race being over 200 miles in the Alps of Italy.  It seemed like forever but bits and pieces of the trail  finally widened so you could pass but the steepness really prevented you from accelerating.  

So off we all were heading to be the first mountain pass.  The course included many opportunities for you to climb over summits of 8000, 9000 and 10000+ feet.  It was hard to communicate with many of the runners as there definitely was a language barrier.  I do not understand most of the Italian language and most of the European runners didn't understand English either.  At one point I did find some other runners trying to pass others runners as well.  They didn't have the usual European gear either and found out that they were from Colorado.  It was Missy and Brett Gosney.  There were just a handful of Americans there and we really stuck out with our Yankee gear.  

Missy and Brett

We chatted a bit and went back and forth on the course trying to move ahead.  At this point the rain had stopped and the scenery was starting to open up a bit.  It was still cloudy but the mountains were emerging and they were magnificent even with streams flowing from the rains earlier.  

From this point on I don’t recall every step and mile so I’ll just get into some of highlights.   The course was broken down into 7 sections of approximately 50K each.  At each 50K was a major “life station” that provided ample food along with cots to sleep on for as long as you wanted, provided you were ahead of the cut offs.  You had one drop bag that was transported around to each of the life stations.  We all had the same size bag too which was a medium sized duffle bag.  

Drop Bags

In the drop bag you had to make sure you had enough provisions to get you though up to 6 days in the mountains.  So dry clothes, winter gear, extra shoes and socks, etc .  You also were required to keep provisions with you in a pack and for good reason as the life stations did not come too quickly.  You might think of 50K as a short distance to go as in a typical 50K race in the states where maybe you can cover it in 4-6 hours.  To give you an idea, the first 100K at the Tor took 27 hours.   In addition to the life stations, there were rustic mountain huts along the way and village establishments where you could find food and possibly a place to sleep for an hour or two.  After two hours they would wake you up and kick you out as there wasn't a lot of space and other runners might be in need of a nap.  And many were so noisy that you just couldn't sleep.

Cows were a common scene on the course as were cow patties.

Day one had the challenges of starting in the pouring rain, then the rain stopped for a while only to have the afternoon with more rain, lightening and hail.  The steeps were incredibly steep and finally I broke out the sticks (trekking poles).  Never having used them before except for a few short training runs, they were a big help in ascending some of the extremely steep terrain.  But more importantly, they were almost essential on the descents for braking.  Much of the trail had steep and windy single track with a loose gravel surface.  Without a braking mechanism, you would slide right off the trail.  And I did witness one guy in front of me who went over the bank.  Luckily for him he stopped after about 10 feet.  Somewhere on day one I also met up with an Aussie runner Matt Meckenstock.  Matt and I spent a lot of hours together at the Tor.  Matt participated in the race the previous year but had to run a shortened version of the race due to snow and unsafe conditions.  So he was back to run the full race this year.  Matt was a great wealth of knowledge as he had the experience of running most of the course already.  He also knew to ask for food and many times you had no idea they had homemade tortellini in the back or some wonderful other meal.  He also was a big help in managing sleep.

Resting before ascending de Valtroumenche.

Sleep deprivation was to happen so you had to try to minimize the effects and figure out how much and when to sleep.  As the first night set in, I’m not sure if it was not being acclimated to the altitude or being partially hypothermic from being wet for so long but I went in to an aid station and almost passed out.  I tried to get some food down thinking I was hungry but wasn't having any luck.  Every time I stood up I would get dizzy and almost fall over.  So I decided to lie down for a while.  Here you could nap for two hours at the most so without much choice I found a cot.  It was good to regroup although I never slept but had a chance to dry out some clothes in a room with a hand blower.  And with some dryer clothes and food in the belly I headed back out in the rainy evening.  On a sad note, there was one casualty on the first night.  The rains had kicked in again along with sleet, hail, thunder and lightning.  And when nighttime arrived, it was real dark in those mountains. 

A Chinese 43 year old runner (bib 1040) Yang Yuan, died from serious head injury after a fall. The accident occurred in the area of Fond du lac, under the hill of Crosatie Valgrisenche. According to what has been learned, he fell as he walked down a path made slippery by rain, about 2,650 meters above sea level. He bumped his head violently against the rocks. Our best wishes and thoughts go out to his family.

Day two provided some mental challenges.  The rains were done but now with over 24 hours of being on the trail and seeing how little you progressed, it was exhausting and almost unimaginable how you were to go for 206 miles.  If 100K took 27 hours when you were still “fresh” what would happen when you really got tired. 

Kristin on course

During the race I was able to follow Kristin on her journey.  At most of the life bases I was able to see on-line where she was and see if she was on track.  I was worried about her whereabouts on that first night as I knew she was near that fatality.  Little by little she kept going staying ahead of the cutoffs and was doing great.  Just past the midway point was one of the most challenging sections and I was happy to see her get through that but nearing the 125 mile mark she was losing time and had to make a decision to either get some sleep to avoid massive sleep deprivation or move ahead without sleep and take the chance of making some bad decisions from not being of sound mind.  She chose to stop.  She had made it through the toughest parts of the course and some of the harshest conditions but knew it was time to stop to prevent any catastrophes.  I am very proud of her accomplishments, going 125 miles on some of the toughest trails anywhere on mountains much bigger than anything she had ever experienced.  She'll be back to finish this race. 

Kristin with her trail friends from Poland

Somewhere on course I was coming to the top of the Col Loson and there stood what looked like an American hiking about.  How could I tell?  He had on US gear including Pearl Izumi running shoes.  I remembered Missy and Brett talking about a friend of theirs who would be about to help them out.  Yes it was Brendon Trimboli from Colorado who just ran the UTMB the week before. 


Brendon and I had a great chat overlooking some of the best views in the world.  He took a pic of me at the summit before I moved on.  I would see Brendon on course at various stages of the race giving some great support.

Coming out of the life base Valtournenche, photo by Brendon.

Food and sleep Management:  One of the biggest challenges I found was how to manage your eating and also your sleeping.  Without either one, you just could not continue.  I started out eating a lot of bread and cheese at every aid station.  One can only eat so much of that before you start to develop issues so I switched over to more pasta.  Not all the food was out there in view.  Pasta was everywhere but you had to know to ask for it. I had some of the best homemade tortellini out of a tent on the side of a mountain at 10,000 feet.  At another mountain aid station they had a grill going where I found the best fries and ate so much I had a hard time running for a while.

Enjoying some of the best steak frites ever at Champillon.

And there was no shortage of wine and Grappa.  After having some trouble trying to sleep that first night I found that a glass of wine with some pasta was the best combo to relax and nap for an hour or two.   Finding the right amount of sleep to maximize your energy and time management was something to learn too.  It seemed like 1-2 hour naps were far better than sleeping 3 hours as after 3 hours the body just didn't want to get up and run but 1-2 hours was just enough to recharge the body and mind.

Roman Roads:  All I can say is too many of these ancient highways along the course.  Rough, inconsistent and hard on the feet.  Sometimes would go for miles and miles.

Roman Highways along the course

Another thing I learned in Italy was a lesson in rest rooms.  After eating too much cheese it wasn't really a problem but after eating more nuts, fruit and pasta, I need to visit the bathroom.  I was at one of those smaller aid stations and found a rest room.  I walked in, looked around at a porcelain hole in the floor with what looked like traction ribs on the side.  Hmm, this was weird so I left.  I wandered around looking for a real restroom and found another one of these porcelain holes.  Then I noticed a roll of toilet paper on the wall next to the hole.  After studying that I figured it out.  I called it the stop and drop.  Never seen anything like this in America.

Stop and Drop Italian Style

The last section of the course had some less challenging sections and you almost thought that the worst was over.  That didn't last for too long as it contained some of the coldest temperatures and incredible steep climbs with cables to hold on to.  As the sun set, I slowly added layers, one by one as I climbed in elevation.  By the time I got near the summit of the last major mountain pass I had on every piece of clothing in my pack including a winter hat, mittens and hand warmers.  After that it was still a grueling descent and running through the night over alpine meadows.  

At that point you knew you were getting close to the end and wanted to sprint but still had more climbs and hours to go until the finish.  I did get a surge of energy for the last 10 miles and was passing other runners on the final descent.  I was ready for it to be over.  The final leg was running back through the streets of Courmayeur and it was quiet as it was just after midnight.  Finally after 110 hours, I was done!  Just in front of me was Pierre Mialocq from France.  We had been running together at many times throughout the race.  Even though we had a hard time understanding each other during the race, we enjoyed running together.  


In the end just over half of the field of over 700 runners finished which is pretty amazing.  The awards ceremony was held at the end of the week.  We made a lot of new friends from the Tor from all over the world.  Hopefully we'll see them again on the trail.

The Finishers of the Tor Des Geants 2013

“You are never given a dream without also being given the power to make it true. You may have to work for it, however.” 


Mim Lundy said...

wow ! is about all I can say..What a magnificent feat...and magnificent FEET too. :)
The pictures are just awesome- what gorgeous scenery. I have mo idea how you folks DO this- but you have my undying admiration.
Great blog, Jack.
congratulations to you and Kristin and all the other athletes.

Cesar Hernandez H said...

Amazing recap. I hope I can get to be there one day. This is truly inspiring and congrats on your wedding. I hope you guys had a great honeymoon.....

Mike L. said...

Jack, Congrats on the wedding..and oh yeah, congrats on completing an incredible race! ps your house contracting hurdles may be just as tough. ;-)

Anonymous said...

Jack I stopped checking your blog about a week before you posted this report. Glad I checked today. Marvelous experience of terrain and culture.
Also, very glad to know your life is in such a good place now.
Tom Barlow