Tor des Geants
Unknowingly at the time, my preparations for TOR began in December 2016. That’s when I started to run again, after a five-month period marked by dropping out of Lavaredo Ultra Trail at half-point (Cimabanche at 66 km) in June 2016 and subsequent lack of motivation. Pain in my right knee (ITB) was still there and I was prolonging getting back to trails because of it. I can’t recall what exactly happened, but I clearly remember saying to myself: “You’re going to start running again! I don’t care if it’s only 20 minutes per day, but you will run, step by step.”. And that’s how it started…
My first runs were in Josipovac, where we were visiting Katarina’s family, and I was running for literally 20 minutes at first and then increasing by 5 min a day until I got to an hour. Recovery seemed to be going well so I was finally able to get back to regular training. I didn’t have a structure, just running some modest weekly mileage to keep the form.
I knew about Tor des Geants and that race has always seemed like the pinnacle of mountain ultra trails. It was in the “one day, but certainly not for another couple of years” category. I couldn’t even fathom what it takes to finish it. In January of 2017, I participated in London Real’s Life Accelerator program and part of the deal was setting some big goals. I was thinking about what does look impossible enough. And then the registrations for TOR opened and I remember myself saying one evening, I’m going to apply, what the hell. It was a moment of certainty and inspiration and I did it! When the confirmation came that I was in, I was scared to death, questioning my sanity. What was I thinking? How dare I even participate in this beast of the race, when so many much better runners than me are not even considering it? I knew there were just a handful of runners I knew that finished it or even attempted it (Predrag, Duje and Dalibor finished the whole course, Tadeja had one DNF and one finish, but on a shortened course and Dali DNF-ed).
I also had Lavaredo Ultra Trail in June of 2017 first and I needed to get back to finish it. So after taking a break from last year’s training I contacted my coach, Karl Meltzer (Speedgoat), and told him about TOR. Even though he didn’t participate in TOR, I still don’t know anyone with more experience with 100 mile races plus he set Appalachian Trail record in 2016, so he knew a thing or two about really long-distance trails. The training wasn’t anything other than usual, basically and I always thought that I should do more, more distance, more climbing etc.
Lavaredo went by, I finished it, but not without ITB flaring up again. That was such a downer that I took a month off, trying to heal it. TOR was coming up in two and a half months and I started to seriously question even going there in such a condition. I finally decided to show up on the start line and do as much as I could. I was pretty sure, it wouldn’t be all the way to the finish.
My last two months of training were mostly hiking on Biokovo, Mosor and Medvednica mountains. Looking back at it, I didn’t think it was enough. Karl was assuring me that I was doing well and that everything with be alright at the race. I could hardly believe him, but I trusted his judgment.
And that’s how I got to the starting line in Courmayeur on a sunny Sunday morning…
Courmayeur (0 km) to Valgrisenche (50 km)
And it’s on! The crowd slowly moves forward, we all start to walk and then to jog through the central street of Courmayer with the cheering spectators all around us. Turn to the right down the bridge and then left, leaving the town to get to the foot of the first mountain, just outside Courmayeur.
The climb was a single track at a good incline, passing through the woods. As the trees were replaced by meadows, the single track was replaced by a wide forest road. Good part of the trail allowed for a spectacular view of Mont Blanc, bathing in the sun. I knew the looks of the first pass from the photos and I was expecting it excitedly. The final climb to the pass Col Arp looked pretty steep on the photos and I was wondering how hard it would be, considering it a first gauge of the difficulty of the race. I quickly realized that it wasn’t as steep as it looked on the photos. Just a regular climb. That’s good, I thought. Either that or I’m in good shape, which was even better. Cheering crowd at the top boosting morale is always a good sight and it was no different this time.
Passing the col, magnificent views on surrounding mountains opened up and the winding valley below, which is where we were heading. The looks of it reminded me of the descent from Col Chavanne to Alpetta, part of the TDS-UTMB race. It also reminded me of ITB pain, so I carefully jogged downhill, not to provoke any pains this early in the race. First aid station of the race, Youlaz, was stocked properly, but I only had a bit of dried fruit and went on, now descending into the valley below. I remember the spectacular sight of beautiful dandelion-like flowers floating up in the air, born up the mountain slope by air currents.
Most of the blogs and race reports told about the deceptiveness of the distance during TOR. This was my first encounter with it. Not as bad, but still, La Thuile, the first village on the course, looked closer than it actually was. Walking through the centre, where just two days ago Katarina and I were strolling and doing some last-minute shopping, surroundings were familiar. The aid station was at the end of the village, and Katarina waited for me there, ready with the food she prepared. She laid everything on the table in front of me: quinoa salad, avocado and grapes. I caught many glances from other runners as they were wondering where did I get all this wonderful food. It looked very different from the standard pasta, bread and dried fruits, provided by race organisers.
Leaving the station, I started to jog along the road leaving the village and quickly turned left, following a forest road. Rolling hills for a while and then a left turn into the woods with the rocky path climbing up there somewhere.
Being in a long race with lots of ascents, its a common pastime to look at the running shoes of the person in front. It makes one focused on the immediate action, instead of thinking too much about what’s ahead. I noticed two French runners in front of me, one in his late 40s and the other in late 50s. 40s guy seemed like he’s already done TOR as he was constantly running around the other guy, taking videos with his phone. 50s guy had Marathon des Sables clothes and was moving slowly, but surely. Based on the observed and some other signs, I concluded that these two guys are experienced and know what they are doing to finish the race. Therefore, I decided to follow their pace, at least at this stage of the race. It was quite slow, but what did I know? There’s miles and miles ahead of me, so I better stick to this slow tempo. And so I climbed, one foot in front of the other, going slower than I would have otherwise.
I believe that this decision was the good one and that it helped me pace myself properly early in the race, which allowed for sustained energy later on.
Coming to rifugio Deffeyes, I sensed a sudden cold and was just about to get long-slieved shirt out of my backpack when the volunteer warned me that it is advisable to do so. There was a French guy (it was obvious that he was originally from South America) was still in his t-shirt and shorts and I could help but wonder for the next hour about what he was made of. Passo Alto (2857 m) was son reached and a long descent with rubble of rock ensued. This was the place Dali told me about and how terrible it was for her.
I remember the next climb, to Col Crosatie (2829 m), to be the hardest. It was already dark, cold and terrain was unforgiving. Passing that col, on the way down to Planaval aid station, there is a marking for the Chinese runner who died at the spot few years before. I think he slipped and hit his head on the rock. It was a stark reminder to be careful and focused at all times.
Katarina was waiting for me at Valgrisenche and we met close to where she parked. We soon learned that the life base wasn’t actually in the centre of Valgrisenche, but 3 km further up the road and she followed me to the base, without a headlamp, so she used for iPhone light to get back.
Most of the runners already left the base when I got there, many of them didn’t stop to sleep. I was well advised to sleep at every life base so I decided to heed the advice. Rooms were crowded and noisy, but a volunteer showed me a free bunk bed and I crashed on the upper one. It was impossible to sleep as every single runner seemed to be shuffling through their bags and every single item seemed to be in a single plastic bag, making shushing noises. Somebody called my name from the lower bed and it was Vlada. What were the chances! From this point on, we would be sharing our journey many times over the next few days.
Valgrisenche (50 km) to Cogne (106,2 km)
Second stage of the race is said to be the most difficult in terms of climbing, because we had three major passes to cross, one of them being the highest point of the race (Col Loson at 3299).
I left aid station together with Vlada in the early morning hours just before dawn. After a super brief descent to the dam, we crossed the river. This was a change in the usual course, probably due to some works along the route. It didn’t change anything in subvstance, we were just taking the east side of the lake (Lago di Beauregard) instead of the west one. Vlada went into the woods to do morning business and then took off ahead of me. The course was pleasant, mild ascent through the woods, and the day was breaking, so I enjoyed just being there very much. That’s how I felt, at least. Beautiful dirt trail with nice views, grass and flowers all around. Climb brought me to Rifuggio Chalet de l’Epee. I had no need for a break, so I just sipped some water and nibbled on dry fruits and went on. Some participants slept there, even though it was close to Valgrisenche, probably because they wanted to get ahead of the time limit.
Leaving the chalet and climbing a small hill behind it, revealed the next target: Col Fenetre. Trail leading to it became increasingly rocky and technical. Col itself seemed to perpendicularly ascend from it. That’s steep, I remember thinking! The climb always looks more daunting from afar. Climbing the Col wasn’t as bad and the view from it was amazing. The name (fenetre, window in French) was very fitting. It looks as if somebody cut a passage through sheer rock. What transpired next was the worst (not that there weren’t other contenders) descent in the race for me. Very steep dirt trail with loose rocks, hard to go slow, hard to go fast. A combination of walking, running and sliding and my knees felt it. Valley below seemed unreachable, but once I got down I looked up and wondered, who in their right mind would climb this col from this side? Anyway, one climb down, two more to go for the day.
Reaching aid station of Rhemes-Notre-Dame, I felt the heat taking its toll. I sat down on the bench thinking that I need to cool down and perhaps even lay down a bit to get some rest. The rest came rather quickly, so after having some food and drink, I left for the second of the three major climbs in this race stage. The second pass, Col Entrelor, at its 3002 m was no joke and the climb on the map looked steeper than the other two. First part of the trail went through the woods, but quickly the views opened as we got above tree line. Two Frenchmen were still close to me, sometimes in front of, sometimes behind me, depending on how their shooting session went. I glanced across the meadow to the left and saw one, than two, than even more marmots. I didn’t realise they were so big! I always love seeing animals in their natural habitat, so was very happy to share this new experience with other runners.
The climb progressed and got steeper and I was a part of the loose group of runners, including the two Frenchmen, following each other from the last aid station. We couldn’t have seen the actual pass, we only saw what we thought was the pass, until we turned around the corner. The next point always seemed further away and it was hard to believe that we’re not there yet. The pass itself was quite rocky, like many of the passes before, but once crossed, nice long trail led down the side of the mountain into the valley. I felt good and ran pretty much all of it, except for a short snack break.
Katarina was waiting for me at the next aid station, Eaux Rousses, and I couldn’t wait to see her. Eaux Ropusses was the point after which the two Frenchmen dropped out at as the older guy didn’t make the cut-off time.
I left the station together with Katarina as she had to do her training session for the day. The ascent was long, leading to the highest point of the race, Col Loson (3299m), so she went on faster than me and turned back when she was done with her workout. We kissed goodbye for the day and I pressed on as the sun was setting down. The climb was endless. I had good energy, but the top never came. I looked above many times and literally couldn’t make if the lights on the top were headlamps or stars. I started to shiver and my hands were freezing, although I had gloves and over-gloves. I learned later on that the temperature at the top was around -12C.
Crossing the pass, I realised that my headlamp was starting to die. I stopped briefly, less than a minute, to put on the spare one and after that minute I felt freezing chill to my bones! There was a bivouac just after the pass and I asked the volunteer if I may come in for a minute just to warm up. He said that according to the rules of the race he couldn’t let me in as that wasn’t an aid-station, but he could offer me some tea. I accepted and thanked him, pretending that I warmed up, but didn’t at all. I needed to start running or I’d get hypothermic. To make matters worse, the new headlamp that I’ve just put on had dying batteries too. The light it projected was dim. It was enough to make the sense of the trail and I’m pretty good with running at low light, but I started to wonder if I was going to make it in time to the aid-station that was an hour away. That hour was probably the lowest point of the whole race for me. Being cold with narrowed vision made me half-hallucinate and everything was just one big blur. Arriving at the aid station, I sat at the bench inside the mountain hut and tried to get a grip on things. Luckily, the warmth helped and when I went outside again, after 5 minutes of running downhill I got back to functioning normally and the descent into Cogne, were Katarina was waiting for me, went well.
Life base in Cogne was a proper one and I took shower and went to sleep in the large sports hall. Cut-off time allowed for couple of hours sleep and I intended to use all of it and leave the station just before the limit. Seeing Vlada sleeping nearby, actually trying to sleep, we agreed to leave the station together.
Cogne (106,2 km) to Donnas (151,3 km)
We left Cogne just before the time limit, Vlada 5 minutes after me. It didn’t take him long to pass by me, right at the point where Marina had a strong finish at 4K Alpine Endurance Race the year before, as he was recounting. Walking through still dark village, my legs felt a bit stiff, but after a short while, I got into a steady rhythm. Very soon the first light of the dawn was visible and I enjoyed the next section of the trail which slowly wound uphill, through the forest. The temperature was temperate and one long sleeve was enough. However, as the climb progressed and altitude increased, it started to be windy and cold, even though the sun was shining. One quick stop for snack (burrito, what else) and I was soon enough in Riffugio Sogno di Berdzé, just below the pass Fenêtre de Champorcher at 2827 m.
This pass marks the beginning of a long descent to the lowest point of the race, Donnas, where the next life base was located. Each one of the passes called “fenêtre”, truly is a window and it leads into another world. The view opened up to the valley and after a technical trail section, a wider mountain road continued down the barren landscape. Soon enough, I passed by the alpine lake “Lago del Miserin”, a patch of water that looked unreal in such a high altitude. It was getting warmer and I started to jog downhill, following the road. “Hey, hey, right, right!”. I turned and saw a girl in the race shouting after me. This was the only time in the entire race that I missed the turn. Lost in my thoughts, I went down the road and wasn’t very observant of TOR flags. Quick stop at Rifuggio Dondena for a glass of Coke, refill of water and off we go!
An hour went by, then another one. The temperature was rising, the knees were feeling the steep sections and the next station was nowhere near. As the trail descended, I was getting hot and starting to feel bored although the nature and sparse houses were beautiful. I decided to put on my headphones for the first time and to listen to an audiobook (The Rise of Endymion by Dan Simmons). Lost in my thoughts, I saw a face that looked familiar. At first I didn’t recognise him, but he had seemed to have known me. Of course, it was Damir! It’s just that it took me a second or two to get it, as I wasn’t expecting him there and we all had some kind of headwear anyway. We continued together, immersed in conversation about our amazing journey up to that point, but it eventually turned into how each kilometer to the next station feels like two.
Where is this Chardonney? If it’s called Chardonney, where are the vineyards? I don’t see any. Kilometres stretched again and after a pleasant, but never-ending, jog, Damir and I arrived at Chardonney. This aid station is located in the woods, which was refreshing. It was sort of lunch time and I had some pasta and crackers. The opportunity to leave my trace by signing the big TOR poster by the entrance wasn’t missed. It was both inspiring and humbling to participate in such an endeavour and by writing my name at every station, I felt like documenting this journey. It was time to leave, but not before a visit to the proper toilet. What a relief! How such a mundane activity can mean so much. I left the station reinvigorated and ready to go. The trail stretched again.
We were descending deeper in the valley and the area became more populated, which I didn’t like. Katarina calls from Pontbosset and asks where am I. I said I’m with Damir and we are entering a village, must be Pontbosset. Great, she says, I’m waiting for you. 15 mins later, she calls again, where are you? Ahm, we left the village, must be something else. Turns out we still have 2km to the station. I have no idea how or why, but I have enough experience to know that in ultras mind always tends to shrink time and distance. The station was a large tent in the middle of the village square and cool shade felt good. It was good to see Katarina again after a long night. I had some Coke, ate another burrito and was out on the trail quickly.
Donnas wasn’t that far and it marked half-point through the race. Not far my ass! Entering Donnas, or what I thought was Donnas, I was running downhill on the road, having left Damir close behind some 5–10 minutes. Yes, finally there, I am going to get some sleep and then think about what comes next. Running through “Donnas” was easy, but disappointing. I didn’t like being in crowded town with people, cars and noise all around with hot and stale air. Nobody seemed to care about this race, very unlike all the other places we visited. I felt a strong urge to get back to mountains and to get away from civilisation.
OK, so I can see this majestic fortress of Bard, guarding an entrance to Aosta valley, aid station must be just around the corner. No. Perhaps the next one. What, I’m leaving “Donnas” and no aid station in sight? Katarina calls me and after some back and forth about my whereabouts I realise that what I took for Donnas was actually Hone, Donnas was 3km further down the road. I was mentally prepared for long windings through the towns to aid stations, every single blog I read about TOR warned about it, so I wasn’t devastated, just impatient. Step by step is the only way to take it, anything else just messes up with your mind.
Donnas aid station is a big one and when I arrived in the late afternoon, it was quite full. Damir arrived shortly after and Vlada was already there for quite some time. Katarina laid out everything for me: food, drinks and change of clothes, while I took a shower. The plan was to go to bed as soon as possible and get 4 hours of sleep. Before I left upstairs where most of the beds where, I checked with Vlada and Damir first. Their plan was to keep going while I thought they should get at least some sleep. The sleeping room was already pretty full and lacked fresh air. I found a bed in the corner and crashed immediately. It turned out to be the longest and best sleep during the entire race and looking back, I think it was crucial for the remainder of the course. The continuous ascent after Donnas, with +2200m is the longest and highest one in the entire race, and going into it without rest is just crazy. I left my calf compress gear on, thinking it could help with recovery. An hour after falling asleep I was awoken by tightening pain in both of my legs! I took “calfs” off immediately and enjoyed remaining sleep like a baby. Upon waking up, I felt refreshed, but it took 5 mins just sitting on the bed to get moving again. I dressed up, went down to get some more food and drinks and as I was sitting down I saw familiar face that was supposed to be up ahead of me long time ago — Vlada. Hahaha, somehow I wasn’t surprised to have seen him. He tried to sleep, but couldn’t and was happy to continue with some company during the night. I was the first one to leave, walking through a sleepy town around midnight, but Vlada caught me after 1km, just as the climb was about to begin.
Donnas (151,3 km) to Gressoney Saint-Jean (205,9 km)
The climb to Rifugio Coda, the only point in the race that is actually not in Aosta region, is more than 2000m. I had a good sleep and felt rested so I eased into the climb. Most of the next couple of hours I spent talking to Vlada. I guess I had a surge of adrenaline, because I remember talking and talking about stuff. I always liked the night parts of the race. We met only a few of other runners on the way up, some of them quite battered. We were reaching the top just as the sun was rising and it was beautiful! The view from rifugio to the south, direction Bergamo, was a sea of clouds. Later on, we learned that Damir was sleeping in the back room, while we were eating in the main room of the hut.
The descent to lago Vargno was technical at first and later on with mild tracks, but all of it beautiful. We came across a solitary house with an unofficial aid station. People were cheering and had a better selection than most of the official aid stations. As the day was in full swing, our energies were lifted so I remember this part as quite easy and pleasant. Coming to the lake Vargno, aid station was right next to it. The coolest mountain hut I’ve ever seen! Pasta and cola, then the same again, some more cola and off we go.
The part that followed was quite technical and steep. There was a steady colon of several runners at this point and I remember someone asking if this climb will ever end. I answered that I don’t really care, just as long as I can put one foot in front of the other. This section of the race has the highest cumulative ascent with over 7000m. 50+km with such ascent would normally scare the hell out of me, but it didn’t feel that way at all, exactly because I wasn’t thinking about it. I had no idea how much was behind me, how much in front of me. I was just focused on where I am and how to get to the next point.
Few large ascents and descents during the day and I started to approach Niel. A beautiful little village where Katarina was waiting for me. She joined me few hundred meters before the station and started running in front of me to get the food from the car. As she was approaching the aid station an older Canadian couple started cheering her, “bravo, bravo!”. She smiled and said that she wasn’t in the race, but they replied that it didn’t matter, they were still very enthusiastic for her. Niel was a usual mix of scenery. Some runners eating, some laying down, some having their feet massaged. Katarina layed out the whole enchilada of food in front of me on the table that the people passing by were wondering if I had a la cart menu.
After having eaten I felt good and left the station. Well, feeling good turned into not so good after only a few climbing steps. Previous section must have left a mark and I was drained. My energy was on reserve and I had this big 800m hill to climb before descending into the next life base. If it were a shorter distance, I would probably think that I was done, but having learned by now how it goes, I just kept putting one leg in front of the other. It felt so slow, but there’s no alternative. Approaching the top, I picked up the pace and was feeling better. Flat section followed and then a long, gradually descending trail following the creek. I started running and was quite energetic, passing a couple of mountain huts along the way. The descent into Gressoney S.J. became steeper and I had to watch my step around many roots on the trail as the darkness was creeping in.
The next life base is where Dali dropped out the year before and she made it quite clear multiple times, both to me and to Katarina, that I must leave this station, I must not dwell in to too much. Katarina made sure I followed her advice, but I assured her that there is no risk of me dropping out here. The base was full and there was a lot of action going on. I had a usual routine, shower, eat and then went to sleep. The sleep was the most restless so far. I was sweating and woke up many times on the gym mat, all wet. I guess I spent an hour and a half like this and then decided to just go.
Gressoney Saint-Jean (205,9 km) to Valtournenche (239 km)
Leaving Gressoney S.J., we all pass through the village, so I had a chance to do some night sightseeing. Longish flat section turned into a modest climb, which was all good. It’s easier to warm up and get moving this way. Vlada caught up on me on this climb and we progressed together. First aid station was a Rifugio Alpenzu, nice mountain hut, but there was no need to stop there as we got fully stocked in nearby Gressoney S.J. The climb to Col Pinter (2776m) was a single-track through meadows and it got steeper and steeper, but nothing that can’t be dealt with a steady rhythm.
Crossing the pass, the trail became completely different, rocky and barren. I decided to stop to have my burrito and we made a break, trying to shield ourselves from the chilly wind. As we continued, Vlada said that this tempo was too slow for him and that he was getting cold, so he sped up downhill.
Another long descent with the lights in the distance that seem to never get closer. I found myself near the ski slopes and I wondered how all of this looked in the winter. It was still night, but the moon made the surroundings visible and magical. Champoluc was just there, but… not quite. I reminded myself that when I see the first houses it’s usually not the town that I’m after, but a nearby village. I finally descended into Champoluc and dragged myself to an aid station that was conveniently located on the other end of the town. It was just before dawn when I entered the station and I was completely distracted. I went into the toilet and I knew that I was staring at the markings and the doors, but still couldn’t make out what to do. After doing my business I tried to have something to eat, but there wasn’t much of a choice. My original plan, before descending into Champoluc, was to continue until the next life base and sleep there, but I was just to tired to continue. I had to get some sleep. I sneaked into the back room with beds, which was cold, and I laid down, covering myself with as many blankets as I could’ve found. No surprise, Vlada was there as well.
I slept for just over an hour and then left the station alone, into the early morning. It’s interesting how I never got a volunteer to wake me up. Whoever goes to sleep, always asks a volunteer to be awaken at a certain hour and they keep track of everybody. I always woke up on my own, before the planned time.
The next section was easier or at least felt that way. At this stage in the race, I got to a point where when I would saw a pass up there, way up there, I would just look forward to climbing it and was wondering about magnificent views from there. It wasn’t different this time and Col di Nana didn’t disappoint with the views.
The descent to Valtournenche went smoothly and I was looking forward to this life base and seeing Katarina again. Although this was the shortest section, it didn’t feel that way, because it started during the night and I had some sleep in the meantime. Thinking about it, if I slept properly at Gressoney S.J., I probably wouldn’t had a need to crash in Champoluc.
Valtournenche (239 km) to Ollomont (287,2 km)
Valtournenche was lively and I could tell it is a popular ski resort. I entered the big tent with food a bit before Katarina arrived. It was well stocked, the best one thus far, so I enjoyed two full plates of baked potatoes and tomatoes.
Valtournenche was the most interesting life base so fsr. It was located at a local sports centre and had all the facilities that we needed. The stage in the event hall was turned into infirmary. I’ve never seen so many feet in such a bad cvondition! Luckily, I didn’t need any medical help, my feet were fine, thanks largely to Altras. I had enough time for rest, so I went to sleep and planned to spend at least 3–4 hours there. I woke up rested after about 2 hours and felt rested. I learned to listen to my body, so if I felt good, there was no point in trying to get more rest. Vlada was there too, but he couldn’t sleep much, if at all. We got ready and left the base together as the darkness started descending.
The next section didin’t look as daunting on the profile map, but is truly a beast. Especially, coming at this stage of the race. After a first climb we arrived at a dam. I told Vlada that this must be the dam from the movie The Italian Job. It wasn’t, but right there and then I was certain that it was.
Soon enough, we reached Rifugio Barmasse, already full of other runners. Nudged by Vlada, I asked couple of Italian runners sitting next to us about the weather conditions at the top. Could be cold and windy, they said. What a surpise! We left the rifugio with them and ran some flat parts all together to get warm.
As we started the climb to Fenetre du Tsan, the terrain got barren and rockier and temperature dropped. Vlada couldn’t keep warm at my slower pace so he pressed on. Passing the col, lights from the next aid station, rifugio Magia, were clearly visible down in the valley. OK, it’s getting cold and the rifugio doesn’t look that far so it shouldn’t take long. Yeah, right! The path turned and the lights were gone. How can it be, they were right there only 5 minutes ago. There’s really nothing to do in such a situation. Even if one wanted to drop out, there was no going back. Just too far away. Being in the middle of nowhere, with no option for exit, one must press on, with whatever is left. No options left, leaves only one option: forward. Just dull the mind, kill all the thoughts and go. Eventually, rifugio Magia showed up and I stumbled into it, tired and chilled.
Rifugio wasn’t as warm as I would have expected it, so I knew I must not dwell too much there, lest I get hypothermic, which is my worst nightmare. I got some soup and entered the room on the left. I found Vlada, leaning on the table, slumbering. He was exhausted from lack of sleep since the beginning of the race and the cold that he got. I told him that I needed to go on or this will be the end of me and encouraged him to get something warm, perhaps sleep a bit and get going. The section ahead was no joke, rugged terrain high in the mountains in the middle of the night. This is were Vlada eventually dropped out. He made an attempt to continue, but had to get back to rifugio and call it a day.
I started the climb slowly, my legs tired, energy drained, body cold. I had to put on my thermal mountain jacket as an extra layer. That was it. All the warm clothes were on me, but it felt good. It saved me. Never too much caution with warm clothes in the mountains.
After the first steep part, going got easier and rifugio Cuney was visible. Section of the trail made a loop so I could se rifugio in the distance and the trail going back towards me. It confused me for a moment and I thought I made a wrong turn, but it was just a loop, going to rifugio and back around a big rock formation.
I was alone, a headlamp light would occasionally appear in the distance, high in the mountains, stars and moon were above me, the air was cold, but my body warmth returned so I was enjoying the experience. The strength came back as I got into a good rhythm again.
There was just one more pass before the descent into Oyace and I didn’t plan to make any stops along the way. Just before the final climb into Col Vessonaz, there was a small hut, bivouac Clermont. I opened the door and felt a steam going out the door. It was that warm inside. A volunteer asked me if I wanted to sleep and showed me the room with about ten beds. I almost burst into laughter, seeing exhausted runners in full gear packed into a small room, which felt like sauna compared to outside temperature. I thanked him and said I was OK, so I just had some Coke and left.
The section from rifugio Magia to col Vessonaz was perhaps the most brutally beautiful experience of the whole race.
Descent from the pass started as usual, freaking steep, with loose rocks. My knees were feeling it and I was cursing on my way down. After about 200m of descent I saw the most bizzare scene of the whole race. One guy was sitting next to the trail while his friend was doing push-ups and counting! Mind you, this was in the middle of the night, on the steep technical trail, after a very hard section. I couldn’t help but laugh as I passed them on the way down. Does this descent (-1400m) ever end?
After many mind games, the scenery changed, the trail entered the forest and I knew Oyace couldn’t be that far. The sun was about to rise and my plan was to get some sleep in Oyace, although it was only an aid station, not the life base. As I entered the town, I was met by a guy calling my name and speaking my language. I was so confused, as didn’t know anyone speaking Croatian or similar language at the race except the ones I knew. I was so dumbfounded, that I blurted almost impolitely “Who are you?”. “I’m Rus” he answered. Only then it hit my mind that that must have been Vladimir Kot, Russian guy living in Montenegro, who was following a Russian girl in the race. His nickname was “Rus”, as we say for Russian. That just made my day! Not too far to go, he said and went on as I sped up towards the station.
Oyace aid station was not as busy, but all the beds were taken. I enquired about it and was told to wait perhaps 10–15 minutes until someone leaves. OK, I thought to myself. Let’s get something to eat and then I’ll take a nap. I was pretty tired and felt the absence of sleep, but as I got some food and just sat on the bench for a while I started to think about holding on with sleep until the last life base, Ollomont, which was only 13km away. If I could make the big climb, Col Brison (2492 m) in between, that is. I assessed that I could do it, so I just packed some food and left.
The climb wasn’t easy, but not that hard. Everything becomes relative at this point. Distance, ascent, descent, time, tiredness… everything is just relative. It’s relative to the end point, to the goal. If the finish line was in Oyace, I would have probably crashed there. But it wasn’t. My next goal was Ollomont and I said to myself, let’s just get there, that’s the furthest you’ve ever been. You’ll see Katarina, eat well, get good rest and reevaluate. After Ollomont, there’s only Courmayer, the full circle. And if I make it to Ollomont, I don’t know what would have to happen to stop me reaching the finish line. So I ran the last 2 km on the road into Ollomont life base, past cheering crowds, feeling fabulous…
Ollomont (287,2 km) to Courmayeur (338,6 km)
Ollomont was a lively base. Food was provided in the mountain hut, but the runner’s centre was in the tent. That meant, medical support and sleeping. Usual routine, shower, food and then sleep. Katarina was hanging around while I was sleeping, because she was waiting to join me to do her training session. She told me that Toni Vencelj, Slovenian top trail runner, spent a lot of time at this base, but he was already in Courmayeur by now.
I woke up with sharp pain in my both knees. This started to occur after each sleep in the last two days. It would eventually subside when I started to move and warm up and it didn’t bother we afterwards. I knew it was nothing to worry about, but something like this was to be expected after so much strain.
So, that was it, the last section! There was still more than 50km to go, but I didn’t think about Courmayer just yet. Let’s get to Col Champillon first and then to Saint-Rhemy-en-Bosses.
Katarina and I started climbing together and after a nice trail through the forest the scenerey clear up. We were surrounded by meadows and Col Champillon was visible somewhere up there. Not too far away from Rifugio Champillon, where we eventually split and she turned back, we were followed by a bull calf. He was all alone behind the fence and ran towards us and kind of spoke to us. Literally. It was very emotional moment, where we felt connection with this calf, where kind of happy that it is free now, but were still sad knowing that his fate couldn’t be bright.
Descent from Col Champillon was steep and as I was preparing for a long flat section once I get to the bottom, I put on my headphones and continued listening to audiobook, only partially listening as my thoughts were wandering from time to time. The night was descending and soon after I reached the forest road, it got dark.
This section was mentally the most demanding one, second to none! 10km of rather flat forest road might not sound as bad until it does. Never, ever, ever, ending. After what felt like eternity I saw the lights, I was relieved. But not so fast! Of course, it wasn’t Saint-Rhemy-en-Bosses, it was a village just next to it. A little bit more of self-control and here was the town I was waiting for. As I entered it, I saw how beautiful it was. The houses, gardens, everything. Streets were dark and narrow. All of a sudden I burst into a small square with the cheering crowd around the aid station tent. I felt like a star. I was pretty down at this point, bit they lifted me up. At least for a minute, that is. I crashed on the bench and forced myself to eat some pasta. I knew I would be going deep in the mountains during the night and sleepiness and tiredness will do their part. As soon as I gathered some strength I left the station alone and started walking down empty streets until I left the town.
After not even 1km, I started to seriously doubt if I can make it to the next aid station without getting some sleep first. I stopped, turned, started walking back and then stopped again. I can’t go backwards, it doesn’t make any sense, I thought to myself. There are two options I can take, go back and get some sleep or take any strength that’s left and pick up the pace to get into the rhythm. Up to that point I was wobbling along the trail, trying to keep my eyes open and getting cold. I decided to take the second, riskier, option. Riskier, because if it doesn’t work out and I can’t pick up the pace, I will get hypothermic alone in the mountain. Not a fun proposition at all. I struggled for 10–15 minutes until the forced pace gave results and my body was able to sustain it, without falling asleep. This was the hardest part of the race in terms of sleep deprivation.
Merdeux was a small aid station and I just passed along. The real goal was rifugio Frassati, whose lights were visible all the way up. It was cold and foggy, but the trail was entertaining, winding up the mountain. I passed couple of headlights and even saw couple of them sleeping along the trail. When I reached rifugio Frasseti, I wasn’t even happy, just glad that I could get warm. The scene in rifugio was the one I’ll never forget. This is my most memorable moment of the race. It was past midnight, in the middle of nowhere and every single one of participants in the hut was completely spent, but not broken. Some guys were ordering beer, one guy was trying to eat soup while holding his head straight with his thumb, some were sleeping wherever they could find a spot and most of us were just sitting there staring at a point in distance.
I honestly didn’t know what to do. My goal was to get to this aid station and then see how I felt. Originally I thought about just warming up and then leaving. What I ended up doing is just sit there, in front of the stove for an hour. I was empty, I couldn’t think, I couldn’t do anything, just sit there, as close as possible to the stove to get warm and stare around the hut. After an hour or so, I just laid down on the same bench and slumbered for another hour.
During all of this time, words were rarely spoken, but many gazes were exchanged. And I know we all communicated everything. Nobody had to say anything, we understood each other, we knew how we felt, we knew what we’ve been through and we knew what we were about to do…
Warmth and sleep made me feel better and I left rifugio Frassati around 2 am. After several hundred meters, my phone rang. It was Katarina. She was out of herself, worrying about me. What I didn’t know at the time is that there was no phone signal at rifugio and she thought that I left it long time ago and didn’t show up at the next aid station, while not answering the phone. She was relieved that I was OK, but just at that moment, I realised that I lost my right glove while taking the phone out. This might seem like a nuisance, but can jeopardise everything if my hand get frozen, as it easily does. Luckily, as I started to go back, one fellow runner brought it to me, as he saw it on the trail.
What was left ahead of me, was the ominously sounding, col Malatra (2936 m), the last big pass. I knew there was snow at the pass and in the night it looked like entrance to Mordor. I was warned to be careful at the final ascent, but it wasn’t that bad, even though caution is advisable. Crossing Malatra I felt something special. That was it. What’s left to Courmayeur is only about 20 km, I just need to get it done. Only now have I started to feel that I will finish the race. Everything up to this point was just getting to the next aid station. I was almost sorry that this adventure was about to end.
Another descent followed with my energy levels rising as I was expectantly waiting for the view of Mont Blanc. But now so fast, there’s still another climb to be done. It’s funny how all the climbs that look small on the map are actually quite serious ascents in the real world.
Crossing the final pass, what was left is just one more aid station before Courmayeur: rifugio Bertone, very well known, because it is an aid station for UTMB too. Along the way, I saw signs pointing to rifugio Bonatti, so I started to imagine what’s it like at this point of UTMB.
Oh, there’s Mont Blanc, finally! The sun was about to rise and I quickly snapped a selfie. Not too later I saw another Mont Blanc, the real one. Hahaha, the first top was something else.
The trail started to follow the valley below and many parts were runnable so I ran or at least hiked really fast. I was so full of energy that I couldn’t hold myself and I passed by many runners. My only thought was, where is Bertone. I was so eager to get to Bertone as soon as possible that I couldn’t hold myself when I reached it. Now, this is really it. The only point left was Courmayeur. I saw the town below and I couldn’t hold myself anymore so I ran as fast as I could down the trail. I covered this last section, Bertone to Courmayer, just a couple of minutes slower than Javi Dominguez, winner that year and course record holder!
Katarina was waiting for me among the first houses in Courmayeur and she wanted to stream my finish live over Facebook. We got so entwined in our iPhones and how to enable live streaming that we neglected the overall feeling. When she finally managed to get my iPhone to work it drained the battery quickly, but she still managed to get it on video. Running through the centre of Courmayer, Saturday morning, was a special feeling. I was visualising crossing the finish line so many times, that I got very emotional many times during the race. Every time that I would feel that the tears might come, I would hold them back, saying, it’s not over yet. Wait until you’re done and then you can let it all out. Unfortunately, and this is something that I really regret, I crossed the finish line after 338,6 km and over 30000 m of elevation and that was it. I wasn’t emotional at all. I was sure that I would cry from happiness, but no tears came.
The organisers congratulated me and then we left for our apartment. As we were getting near the car parking, I saw Damir hurrying to the centre. I called him and he was surprised that I finished so soon. He was following me online and was about to meet me at the finish line. I guess my descent from Bertone was quicker than the system anticipated.
Katarina did a great deal of work in supporting me during the race. I know it wasn’t easy for her driving so many kilometres, day and night, to get to crew me. This race was truly a team effort and I am not sure I would have finished it without her there with me. The food she was preparing was important, as I ate a lot and aid station food was just not enough, but more than that, seeing her at almost every aid station gave me something to look forward to and gave me great emotional support.
I also want to thank everybody that was following me day and night and for their support and encouragement. I wasn’t aware of it during the race as I went 100% offline, but some info got through to me from Katarina, Vlada and Damir. I also want to thank those that doubted me, as it gave me extra motivation not to quit.
Special thanks to Crv and Golub for lending me some of their clothes and equipment as well as the advice to sleep whenever I can and to Dalibor for sending me his notes from previous year and encouragement during preparations and during the race!
Every single Geant (as the finishers of Tor des Geants are called) will say that this race is in a category of its own and it is. There’s nothing like it. It’s not only distance, climbing and terrain. It’s the inner journey, emotions, camaraderie and primal human nature. That’s what sets it apart and there’s no wonder why so many people want to go back. I know that I do, but not just yet. I need to feel its call. I need to get inspired. Without a strong desire and motivation, failure is pretty much guarantied. I think that’s the reason why so many trail runners who are focused on their finishing times and personal bests are having hard time to even attempt TOR.
My main motivation for ultra races has always been a challenge. A challenge of being on the starting line, regardless of how much I’ve trained, and wondering if I will get to the finish line. A challenge of discovering what’s possible. If I know I can do something, it’s not as appealing. If someting seems impossible, that’s what gets me going. When I finished 100 Miles of Istria, I thought to myself, who knows where is the limit. After finishing TOR, I know there are no limits.
This account is just one take on TOR. It could be tackled from many different angles, in fact the whole book could be written about it, delving deeper into inner adventure.
I hope this account will serve some future Geants and help them with the race. After all, I’m really just a regular guy, without any special athletic talent or skill. I do train, but what sets TOR finishers from non-finishers (excepting injuries or any medical conditions, of course) apart is the mental strength and stability.
Until next adventure!