I hadn't really expected to get into this event. I felt that I was a few years away from being ready for it. I'd put my hat in the ring expecting not to get through the ballot first time but to get a few extra tickets for the next couple of years. So imagine my surprise when I got in first time.
After London marathon the plan was to hit the hills hard, a trip to Chamonix for 10 days should have laid some good ground work.
However, you'll know from my previous blog that I've been pretty poorly for several months now. After being diagnosed with Whooping Cough, I accepted that what I had wasn't going to kill me. However, it certainly wasn't making me feel great. For months, waking up in the night unable to breath and choking has been pretty tedious. Training wasn't going to plan. Basically just getting easy runs in when I felt ok - nothing long featured.
I had a 24 hour relay race with some friends from work to get through the week after Lakeland, on the way there nearly vomiting I was coughing so hard, Lyndon one of my team mates had given me an inhaler to try out. Which to my surprise really helped alleviate the attacks when they were in full swing. I went into the race not knowing how many laps I could do, I said I'd see how the first one went and go from there. I'd had a couple of runs that week which had been 3 mins run, 1 min cough. Pretty miserable.
As it happened, running itself seemed to open up my airways enough to get through a 9k tempo effort. I was still reserved in my pace so I didn't over do it. As soon as I stopped however, I'd have impressive choking fits for 10 mins or so. The team did great. We won with a course record and 7 laps each all really consistent, no one dropping off the pace. My laps were all between 41 and 44 mins and despite getting literally no sleep (the cough is much worse laying down) I felt strong in my legs.
Anyway, we managed to fit in a trip to Brecon in the final weeks of training where we did 4 reps up the 450m climb. I felt great. I didn't quite understand how. But I was going to go with it.
The final week was spent, sorting kit, buying new kit, sorting nutrition. The race on paper is 330km, 24,000m ascent (it was actually 340k and 30,000m ascent!) a lot of which is at altitude, I wasn't sure how my cough would behave. It had seen some improvement in the last few weeks. Still running seemed to favour it slightly. The fits weren't so persistent. More like a fake attention seeking cough now.
My friends Jenn and Gary were doing the TDG too - it was return visits for them having completed or attempted it in previous years, we met some other return offenders who had lots of advice and spoilers of things to come. Which was a bit irritating at times. I don't recce routes because I like to be surprised by the route, so I didn't want to know too much. It's useful however to know which are the more technical or slow sections so you can be prepared for this mentally. The days before the race were spent hanging out with friends, eating pizza and ice cream - when in Italy! I was keen to get going now though.
Tor Des Geants - A la Trip Advisor:
Accommodation on the Tor is a mixture. You can find human alarm clocks, spa's, shower facilities and delightful eating establishments. A lot like Club Tropicana - the drinks are free.
Life Base 1 can be found in Valgrisenche - approx. 50k into the adventure. Having covered around 4000m ascent, over 3 major cols reaching altitudes of 2800m twice, you'll be ready for a break and refuel. One of the busier bases due to the volume of guests passing through at this early stage, finding a bed was not as challenging as expected - one room had a blast heater which for some would be unpleasant to sleep in. Recommendation would be to take a meal in the dining room before retiring for a short nap (I tried to take 90 mins here but only slept for 30 mins due to excitement). Food choice is wide. Hot and cold drinks, even local lager. Hot pasta and potatoes, with a choice of slop. Biscuits, cakes, and of course, as you're in Italy - CHEESE! More cheese than you can shake a stick at.
Life Base 2 may be found in Cogne. After a particularly challenging section over several thousand meters of climbing, technical descents, topping out at 3000m then a breathless 3300m. If you time your trek well you can be treated by an incredible sunrise over one of the high cols you will encounter. Once more, the facilities are well equipped. You will find hot showers and comfy beds, a similar abundance of food. By this point, you will have been up and down many mountain passes and spent little time below 1800m altitude. Your appetite may be reduced but the cheese is there to be eaten! I had taken a short nap at a previous CP of 45 mins so there was no here (also there was a queue to use a bed) but I took advantage of a shower and some fresh knickers.
Life Base 3 is located in Donnas - at a mere 300m above sea level and very hot! Of course before you reach Donnas you have a long high climb to 2800m before a 30km descent - it sounds like it would be easy. It's not what your quads want after a few days trekking. However it did make this section go a little quicker and get some faster kilometres under your belt. There is a particularly challenging final 7 or 8 km into the life base that can take the wind out of ones sails if allowed, the route profile isn't very detailed here. On the way in, we stopped at a gelataria for an ice cream and took an enforced 10 minute sit down on the scorching tarmac while waiting for a train to go past and the rail crossing to re-open. At the CP, i dined on Pasta slop, then laid on the floor while Doug visited the medics to have his feet taped and closed my eyes for 10 mins
Life Base 4 can be found in Gressonney. The section from Donnas is a tough one. After literally bounding out of here full of oxygen feeling incredible, forgetting to eat at the CP 1000m higher up the mountains. The next let's say 24 hours passed by very slowly and painfully, only during this time did i think that i may not finish the race due to timing cut offs. I assume someone dropped a tab of acid in my drink at the aid station as I spent several hours high in the hills, in the dark seeing things, having strong sense of De Ja Vu. I was convinced I'd been here before. I knew what was coming. There's a hill here. There's a drop here. I know this corner. But when was I here. The only time I'd run near here was UTMR in daylight.... (of course it was just my exhaustion, my brain not working fast enough to know that I hadn't been here before).
I sat on a rock for 10 mins trying to eat a gel. Put on some extra layers. Reaching the top i found Doug who had had a similar experience and seeing Gary later on also had a challenging section. I recall descending a particularly technical hill. It took over an hour to cover 1.5km, thinking the whole way, I should slow down or I'm going to fall on my teeth. Reaching Gressonney was a relief. Though not without a long hike through town to get there.
I took a shower here and slept on some sports hall bleachers for 30 mins. I recall the food being excellent here, the check point was well managed and staff were very friendly and you can see many of the other guests coming and going.
Life Base 5 is located at Valtournenche. Here I took advantage of the spa facilities and indulged in a massage. The previous section had seen my quads throw me to the ground in disgust so I thought they would appreciate a rub. I was expecting only a 15 minute leg rub. What I got was actually a full body massage for 45 minutes, I can't be sure but my masseuse may have made some inappropriate touching. I wasn't in the right frame of mind for a happy ending but it's always good to know that this is an option at some establishments. After my massage I took an hour snooze before having a hot meal, filling up on biscuits and heading out into an impressive rain and lightening storm.
Life Base 6 is the final accommodation on the Tor located in Ollomont. It was surprisingly busy! There had been a long painful fireroad descent in and the night before I'd been particularly grumpy. I was expecting it to be very quiet but it seemed like half the field and their enthusiastic supporters were here. Here I received table service, and a great selection of food and sustenance. Sleeping wasn't an option here. It was daylight and heading into the final section I was full of energy. I wanted to get up over the next summit and down the other side before I lost daylight. I left this final checkpoint full of it. I went out with the intention of making up as many places as i could before darkness fell for the final time. Up and over i went to 2700m, running back down the other side. As soon as darkness fell, i was sleepy. So i took refuge in a check point for 23 mins. I woke up freezing, layered up. Ate some hot soup and went back out into the darkness. I was almost immediately too hot so de-layered and pushed on through to Bosses where there was an option for a decent sleep. I was very tired but this section was fast so i ran as much as I could. Feeling great I checked in, saw Gary asleep face down on a table, I'd received a text from Conrad not long before that he wasn't far ahead and to overtake him. Tempted to sneak on past him i decided on a whopping 2 hour sleep in an amazing castle type thing. (I think anyway). I woke up very confused being shaken awake by a human alarm clock.
We pushed on to the last refugio. I was really sleepy again. I needed to nap. Doug didn't. He pushed on while I took a 30 min nap face down on a table. There was only 15k to go from here. Only 2 more climbs. I wanted to reach the next major climb with the sunrise so I headed out into the emerging dawn.
As I hiked slowly up the last big climb, I looked back at the view of the sun started to rise and started to cry. I was so full of emotion. The week had been immense. The end was in sight. But I wasn't ready for it to end. I sat down for a few minutes watching the sky change colour, sobbing. I walked slowly up towards the col. I took a photograph and sent it to Robbie saying "I don't want to come down!"
I didn't want to be with anyone now, I needed this time for myself, I wasn't in a hurry now to finish. So let people slowly pass. Reaching the col, was a group of people taking photos, watching the sun breach the mountains in the distance. I stopped and sat with them and let out a big whoop of joy.
After the sun had risen i carried on. One long descent until a final 300m climb. It passed by too quickly. Coming through the valley with Mt Blanc ahead of me, i felt so small.
Crying again. Not with sadness, just overwhelming emotion that I've never felt before. I got changed from my warm clothes into skort and vest for the final 10k.
The next 10k was so much fun. The trail was lovely rolling single track, I was running properly. able to run the uphills feeling incredible. So full of energy. There were walkers out on the trails now as I started the final descent.
Shouting "Allez allez", "Bravissimo"
Their shouts making my laugh and cry all at once.
Running hard down the final few km i felt so full of life, Running through town, up the final straight and crossing the line I felt massive pride.
Some people I'd met on the trail were at the finish having just finished, hugs and massive smiles, their supporters brought me a beer and sat down.
Doug had been shipped to the bag drop, my phone was dead so after a while headed down to find him. Visit the spa for a massage, have a nap. He went off to eat ice cream with some others whilst i had a beer with a French guy (neither of us had a clue what the other was on about)
Entertainment and Activities:
Main activities on the Tor are hiking, running, trekking. It's best to commence these with enthusiasm and positivity. Leave your baggage at the start - physical and emotional and really get your head into the event.
The after party is unique. You will receive your finishers jacket the sunday after the race with everyone. No skulking off as soon as you finish. 3 hours of music, and announcements, a cat walk parade and a group photo. It's very special.
Things to look out for:
It's not abnormal to see other guests, laid out on the trail enjoying a few rays of sun. Or dozing quietly on a rock in the night.
I spent several minutes in the pitch dark just staring at the stars feeling very very small, watching the odd shooting star burn up through the sky. These are the moments that you will cherish.
You may be lucky enough to see an Ibex. Look on with envy at how the climb.
Enjoy the sun sets and sunrises. The sunrise can bring with it the most euphoric state. After the night trekking through the stars, the new sun brings with it such energy.
I had a massive feeling of imposter syndrome all week. I got the impression people didn't expect me to finish, a few comments making me feel a bit small. Surprise that I got that jacket on my first attempt - I may have been imagining it. I hadn't gone into it thinking that I would fail, not through arrogance, just a confidence in my body and mental state to get it done - I still had the utmost respect for the challenge. I knew there was nowhere to hide. Doug and I barely spoke all week, which sounds strange. Which was down to me. I had my head 100% in the race. I selfishly didn't want to share it. It was a strange week on many levels - personal, emotional, physical; the whole experience has given me a lot to think about. At some point it will sink in. But for now, I have a busy few weeks at work and a couple of trips in Europe whilst my body and mind recover and I decide what to do next.