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Who needs drugs when there is ultra running?

by @garyfallsover
Thursday 18th September 2014
 
 

Run247 columnist Gary Dalton experiences a week to remember when he takes on the Tor Des Geants!  This is a gripping tale - apart from beautiful alpine tracks, sleepless nights, electric shocks, the devil and the American president all feature!

Sri Chinmoy  aims to help runners transcend their worldly philosophies and become better people through running,  generally achieved by running around and around either a 400m track or a New York city block for days on end.

Run247 columnist Gary Dalton experiences a week to remember when he takes on the Tor Des Geants

Tor des Geants 2014

  • 330 km - 24,000m D+
  • 7 - 14 Settembre 2014

To find out more about the Tor des Geants, visit www.tordesgeants.it/en

Now I don’t know about you but I can’t imagine anything less likely to turn me into a better person than hamstering around a short track for a day or more.

But put me in the Italian Alps, say around 11,000ft, at three o’clock on a moonlit morning, with the moon just cresting over a rocky col and I’ll not only tell you there is God but that he or she was in a particularly benevolent mood when they created the Tor des Geants.

The Tor has occupied large parts of my thoughts for three years or more, each year when entry time came around I sat feverishly at my laptop like a teenage boy in anticipation, though in my case without the handy supply of handcream and Kleenex. But each time I was to be disappointed, the entry criteria changing every year as the race gained in popularity. This year, however, was different.

This year I found myself in the town centre a couple of days before the race, looking at the passing athletes who all looked fitter than me, their t-shirts, their racing CV’s, thinking: who cares, I’m here for me. This is my race, this is for me alone.

That feeling of wonder and anticipation didn’t pass for the next couple of days.

I’d bumped into the Irish International Dan Doherty in Geneva airport on the way to Courmayeur so we spent quite a bit of time chatting about the race, making plans and generally freaking each other out with the enormity of it. There seemed no way to conceivably break down 330k and over 24,000 metres of climb and descent. Our tentative plans were for me to run straight through the first night and for Dan to try to grab 3 hours sleep, however because of the relative difference in our speeds even with that break he was likely to be so far in front of me that I’d never see him during the race. Pizza was consumed,  the course map was pored over and we both tried to figure out the English translations to the Italian map code. In the end we decided to let fate takes course and hope that Refugio actually meant ice cream station.

Day of registration came and we dutifully waited for the hall to open, arriving half an hour early like the good paddys we were. There we met up with another Irish international and adventure runner, Eion Keith and his partner Helen. Lots of story telling and ‘would ya look at yer man’ s later and we were into the hall, only to find out that there was several dozen volunteers to hand out drop bags, but only four for kit check. Oh well, through we went and emerged the other side blinking into the Italian sunshine the proud owners of a big Yellow drop bag, two spare buffs and a cloth printed map of the course. I can only imagine this was so that in the case  we ended up in Switzerland, we could eat all the evidence of our journey. You know how the Swiss are about invasions.

So on Saturday morning I found myself in the starting pool, looking at a guy dressed in what appeared to be a cookie monster costume, praying to all that was mighty that whatever happened in the next six days, please please let me finish ahead of that guy. And off we went, me taking an early lead against cookie monster guy going into the first climb. Which, being the Alps, was within about 200m of the start. And up we went.

Run247 columnist Gary Dalton experiences a week to remember when he takes on the Tor Des Geants

Now I don’t know about you, but whenever I start a race, no matter what distance it is, I tend to spend a great deal of time promising myself I’ll never do anything so stupid ever again. And this race was no exception, but for the fact that with it being so long I spent a proportionally longer amount of time moaning to myself. I conjured scenarios in my head, which involved me falling off cliffs and being struck on the head by dislodged Hokas and so having to retire with my pride intact. After all, no one could criticise a man assaulted by a Stinson could they? But it wasn’t to be and on I went. Now having raced in the Alps a few times, I thought I was prepared for what we faced,  but I very quickly discovered these weren’t the trails of the UTMB course, the well groomed switchbacks which carried stick wielding accountants from Surbiton towards Alpine peaks; no these trails had hairs on their ass, they were what the Americans referred to as ‘technical’ and what the rest of the world called ‘f*****g rocky’.  It was then, when it really hit me that this was to be an experience and a race like no other I’d ever experienced.

Col D’Arp topped out at around 8,500ft and pretty much tipped over straight down on a ridiculous angle on a scree slope, losing around 3500ft over the next eight kilometres or so. This was pretty much the marker for the race: monster climbs, where you tap taped on your poles for three, four or five hours, trying to use the incredible scenery to dull the pain in your legs until you hit the col, took a breath or two, then launched yourself into a helter skelter downhill, trying desperately not to either run off the end of one of the switchbacks or spill a load of scree onto a runner below. This was far, far beyond anything I had experienced in the Alps previously, this was very much big boys running and by the sheer amount of female competitors overtaking me, I was nowhere near as big as my ego had led me to believe.

Down into Thuile I went, sticking to my plan of only stopping for the minimum amount of time possible to go through my pre-race checklist. Feet, kit, food. There was no drop bag at this station and my feet felt fine, no hot spots so I stuffed myself with as much real food as I could and cracked on.  The knowledge that I had only just completed the first climb of 25 tempered my growing enthusiasm for the race, gone were my scenarios where I could drop out without looking like a douche to be replaced by a growing certainty that, despite the odds, I was going to finish this one.

So off again, letting the rhythm of my poles set the pace, keeping things steady at a tempo I felt I could sustain all day. I was very wary that this was unchartered territory for me, though I completed the Spine race earlier in the year this was a whole different prospect, so I wanted to stay well within my capabilities. I walked every uphill and only ran the downhills which were at a reasonable gradient, bearing in mind how much quad damage I could do in a relatively short period of time, the last thing I wanted to do was to destroy my muscles for a ten minute advantage over a person I wasn’t racing anyway. That first day passed in a blur, the support out on the course was incredible and every person we passed gave us encouragement as if we were gladiators going into battle. Though after a while the repeated cries of Dai Dai ( come on, come on) were starting to sound somewhat prophetic.

Run247 columnist Gary Dalton experiences a week to remember when he takes on the Tor Des Geants

Night had fallen a couple of hours ago, when I made it into the first life base, traditionally where people pick up their drop bags, get some sleep or massages, before taking on the rest of the course. I decided to stick to my plan however, went through my checklist, replenished my Haribos and went off into the night whilst the others slept.  

The section from Valgrisenche to Cogne was marked for me by some of the toughest sections of the whole race, the virtual sheer drop off the back of Col Fenetre down onto a Talus Field, trying desperately to gain purchase by the end of every switchback, the sheer steepness forcing you to lean back or allow gravity to take you over the edge onto the glacial moraine. Then the long, long climb up to the highest part of the course, where I actually discovered, like some sort of B list X-Men character, that I had a secondary breathing system which allowed me to breathe out my arse. Without fail whenever we went about 2500m my motivation would drop like a hormonal teen and I’d start coughing up blood. Luckily WebMD said this was not unusual for the altitude so I just took that as being normal. It’s amazing what the brain passes off as normal sometimes.

Col Loson was simply stunning in it’s savagery, a beautiful river valley leading to a scree slope with the longest switchbacks I’ve ever seen cut into it. It seemed that for every 50m switchback we climbed less than a couple of metres. Of course this couldn’t have been the case but with it being well into my second day without sleep I was certainly starting to feel every little difficulty. So tap, tap, tap, feck, I went all the way up, stopping every now and then to pretend to check out the sights but in reality to try and stuff my diaphragm back behind my teeth somewhere. Finally I crested and spent the next three hours swearing on the downhill into Cogne. Now you would think a 12km, three hour downhill would be just the ticket after such a climb, but it was mostly punctuated by me wandering off the trail in my sleep, kicking the multitude of stones that populated the area and lamenting the fact that I thought bringing a kilo of peanut butter filled pretzels was a good idea. It wasn’t.

Finally into Cogne for some sleep and here’s where the wheels started to come off a little. I had planned to grab a couple of hours here before continuing on, but unfortunately several hundred competitors had beaten me to it and decided to have a kit swopping party in the sleeping hall. Luckily the hall was monitored by volunteers who rebuked the transgressors at full volume. So that was nice. Desperate for sleep and knowing how much I needed it I spent the best past of two hours lieing on a cot bed counting rocks, but sadly it was not to be. Back on with the pack and out into the darkness, hoping I could make it to a refuge where I could at least have a couple of hours sleep, knowing that I’d gone longer without sleep before I desperately needed it now to function.

Luckily within three hours I had come upon a refuge, merely a lean to type affair, but it did have an emergency shelter where I grabbed a fitful 90 minutes. Even as tired as I was I couldn’t fall straight asleep, I dozed then startled myself awake with thoughts of falling over.

Run247 columnist Gary Dalton experiences a week to remember when he takes on the Tor Des Geants

On from there, through the night, on the climb to Fenestre de Champorcher was where I struck one of my 'acts of genius'. All along the high passes there were herds of cows and goats, their presence mostly allowed free rein but occasionally they were contained by electric fences, connected up to car batteries. So every now and then, when I felt myself falling asleep on my feet and my mind beginning to wander, I grabbed one of these fences and held on for dear life, usually the one shock was enough to give me a good ten minutes of lucidity, but now and then, particularly approaching dawn, I had to ride the lightning for a second and third jolt. Somehow my addled brain thought this was an act of genius.

Donnas was a bit chaotic as a cp, lots going on but I knew I was feeling the affects of cumulative fatigue, so I decided to sort myself out and try and get an hour's sleep, in vain once again unfortunately. However just as I was getting my kit ready to leave it started to rain, which brought a wry smile. The heat so foar had been punishing and I looked forward to a little Irish weather. However that didn’t last very long as I soon found out it was possible to be pissing with rain but still 27 degrees centigrade. It seemed somehow unfair to be producing water from both sides of my lovey Montane waterproof. Out of town through some of the lushest countryside I’d ever seen, it seemed every inch of ground was covered with fruit trees and vines, runner bean vines covering the roadside telegraph poles. I resisted the temptation to snaffle any until I saw another runner sheepishly exit an orchard with a handful of peaches, so of course I did what any good man would do and helped him hide the evidence.

Off onto the beautiful Roman bridge over the river Lys, stone built with an arch nearly thirty metres over the water. Head down, tap-tapping away, trying to maintain a rhythm with the occasional look up to ensure I didn’t crash into the parapet. After a short while I had the feeling that I was being watched, that little tingly feeling you get in the back of your neck. I turned around to look behind me to see a six foot plus devil in a cape, full red face and protruding horns, pitchfork in hand, bloodshot and staring eyes. Hiya I said. Hi, said he. And off I went again tap-tapping over the bridge.

I’ve subsequently discovered that legend has it that the devil himself built the bridge in Donnas in return for the first soul to cross. However he was cheated of his prize by the towns mayor and has ever since accompanied travellers across in the hope of finding a lost soul.

Donnas to Gressoney was where I started to feel the first inkling that things might not be going along as well as I had hoped. Up to this point I had been travelling well within my limits, I had reasoned that as my first and only goal was to finish the race I should just try and build myself a cushion on the time cut-offs and take it easy from there, I could always come back another year with knowledge of the course and see if I could reduce my time. But I’d started to get a niggling pain in my left knee on the climbs which wasn’t something I’d experienced before. The knee started to stiffen up and soon I couldn’t fully straighten or bend it. I had the constant feeling that it might give way at any moment. Every half an hour or so I stopped to massage the joint but it did little for either the pain or the stiffness.

Finally I got down into the life base in Gressoney and decided to speak to the medical staff there. Checked in, straight into the doctors office who, after a quick examination suggested I may have damaged the medial ligaments of my left knee. I got the definite feeling that the doctor had had it about to here with silly trail runners coming in with a variety of injuries and then ignoring her advice, which of course was to abandon the race. Which of course I ignored. So off to the physio section where they were far more used to treating borderline idiots. First one, then a second, then a third, before finally a fourth physio gathered around for a poke and a prod.

Luckily one of the organisations partners, Technos  Medica, was there too, so after a four way consult and another quick scan, the conclusion was drawn that I’d torn the meniscus in my knee but as long as it was strapped correctly I should be ok to continue. And when I say strapped correctly I mean strapped to buggery. The Marquis de Sade would been proud. All that had taken a time toll though and it was here that I made yet another error of judgement. I should have realised that, despite having spent nearly a couple of hours in Gressoney, I hadn’t really rested at all and should have taken another hour or so to sleep. But I didn’t. And I regretted it. What I hadn’t mentioned to the doctor  and probably should have done, was that pretty much every time I climbed above 8000ft I had been coughing up blood. Everytime I gained substantial height I could feel the bottom of my lungs fill up with liquid, as if I was drowning from inside.

Exhausted I headed off along a forest track, not another light in sight either infront or behind,  beside a river, before crossing a road and taking an immediately steep track through a forested area.  After a couple of hours I came upon the first small cp, unfortunately there was no room at the inn initially, but I knew I needed rest. So I curled up on a bench seat and fell asleep for 90 minutes that passed like a second.

And here’s where it gets kinda weird. Because at that point in the race, around midnight on the Wednesday and  88 hours since the start of the race, I’d had around five hours of fitful sleep.

Hallucinations are part and parcel of any endurance sport. The main adventure racing website in the UK is named after their nickname, Sleepmonsters. But what I experienced over the course of the next eight hours or so went far beyond anything I’d ever experienced and anything I’d ever heard of anyone else experiencing. As I climbed the mountain towards the col, I could look back behind me to see the irregular headtorches of runners following. In my mind I had convinced myself that instead of an average ultra runner from the west of Ireland, I was in fact the leader of the free world, none other than the President of the United States Mr Barack Obama and that I was taking part in the race as a gesture of solidarity towards my countrymen. In fact, it was no longer a race, it was an exodus, we were leaving the lower lands to escape nuclear war and it was my responsibility to set up a new world order on the higher lands.

So as I plodded along towards the col I occupied myself with important topics such as fiscal policy, re-population of the world and whether I wanted another Haribo or not. As the evening went on I struggled more and more and was passed by quite a few other runners until about 300 metres below the summit I was joined by a Spanish runner, who introduced himself as Carlos. This man was to be my Godsend, he told me to follow in his footsteps and cajoled me towards the summit.

Of course in my addled brain nothing was to be quite so simple. In my mind he was one of the sweepers, sent forward disguised as a runner when the organisation had seen me struggling towards the summit. After all the leader of the free world couldn’t be seen to fail in climbing a simple mountain now could he? And so this went on through the night, over the col and down in to the valley. It was only when we finally arrived at a cp in the morning and I got another ninety minutes of much needed sleep that the spell was broken and I returned to being normal old Gary, sleep deprived and hungry.

Weird huh.

I knew at this point I was in serious trouble of not making it. I knew that although I had built a nice cushion against the cut offs, because of my knee pain I was losing time with every step. I knew that because of my sleep deficit, if I tried to reduce my sleep even more, it’d have a knock on effect on my pace whilst moving. I resolved then to just keep moving forward. I strongly suspected that I wouldn’t make it, but I swore to myself that I’d keep going as long as I physically could, I’d rather be caught by the sweepers rather than drop.

That day was a blur of hills and heat, river valleys and never ending ups and downs, falling asleep on my feet and getting chased by goats. At one point I was walking along a slight downhill bit of single track when again I got that feeling that I was being watched. Once more I turned around to see, not  a devil this time but a massive horned cow. Now I have a healthy respect for any animal bigger than myself and I was all too aware of the statistics which said more people were killed by cows than by sharks every year. So I turned back and started to walk again, glancing over my shoulder to see Ermintrude making her way along behind me. I sped up. She sped up. I stopped. She stopped. In the end it took a full fledged gallop and a leap over an electric fence for me to get away and the last I saw of Ermintrude was her looking at me forlornly as I crested the next hill.

As I travelled checkpoint to checkpoint I always asked the distance in time to the next, what the terrain was like and anything else of note. Generally the answers varied from 2-4 hours up to 6-7 hours for the remoter sections. It was before one such section that I stopped at a cp to get some rest before going on, unfortunately this place had neither comfort not quiet, merely a bench to lie your head on in a harshly lit room, people entering and leaving every few minutes. After a short attempt at sleep I decided to try and walk through the night to the next cp in the hope that this one would be more conducive to rest. And so I made another error of judgement and started on yet another night of hallucinations.

You’ll be no doubt be glad to know that my delusion that I was the leader of the free world was not to raise it’s head again, that night's hallucination was to be a little more subtle, though no less weird.

As I set off into the darkness, I knew I had at least six hours of wandering to do, in fact it was likely to be considerably more as with my damaged knee I could make only an approximation of the pace needed to complete. But off I went anyway. At some point on one of the high passes I became convinced that not only was the son of the Chinese premier in the race, but that he was hopelessy  lost and his only hope of survival was for him to follow me to safety. So every fifty metres or so I’d turn around to face the way I’d come and flash my headtorch several times to warn him of the way to go. I then became convinced that, despite the evidence in front of my eyes, the trail had in fact become unmarked by some accident and it was now my responsibility to re mark it for everyone else to follow.

So you had the weird sight of me wandering along a clearly marked trail, stopping every fifty metres or so to flash my headtorch behind to warn the Chinese premiers son of the route before getting down on my hands and knees to move one of the yellow marker flags one foot to the side. And repeat for the next eight hours.

And so my critical mission went on until at last I could see the light of the next refuge. As I walked up to the door I steadied myself to receive the accolades of a grateful organisation, not only for assisting in avoiding an international incident, but also for saving the race for all the following competitors. I resolved as I entered to be humble and gracious, to acknowledge the worth of what I had done, but downplay it as nothing another runner wouldn’t do.

And so I entered the refuge through the outer door and looked to see every eye swing towards me, my chest swelled as the organisation staffer rose to greet me with the words... ‘Tea?’ It was the one and only time in my life that I actually had the thought ‘don’t you know who I am?', but thankfully that was swiftly replaced by the words ‘bed’ and sleep’.

When I woke, all thought of Chinese premier's son and course-marking had disappeared and I headed out the door with a plastic bag of polenta and a warning that the cut offs were approaching.

So tap, tap, off I went, briefly enjoying the cresting of the supermoon over the mountains peak before getting on with the task in hand, staying ahead of the cut offs with a knee in agony and only 30% movement. But try I did until the next morning on the long climb up to col Brisson, around the 280k mark, when I went to step up onto a rock and my knee went from under me. I knew then that my race was done. I was reduced from a steady walk to a geriatric shuffle. I had joked before the race that if I’d started moving more slowly than a glacier, then it was time to quit. Well that time had come. Out came the map and I determined that there should be a cp roughly 300 metres higher up the trail, unfortunately in my state that climb took nearly two hours to complete, using up almost the entire Oxford English dictionary of swear words.

Finally the cp came into view but unfortunately it wasn’t one of the modern mountain refuges, connected by road to the pass network, but a simple lean to construction, staffed by proper mountain men. Once I managed to wipe the dirt from my eyes and made myself understood I kept hearing the word helicopter. 'Aw shite' I thought, not only am I going to drop out, I’m going to have to be rescued like a B-list celebrity from a skiing resort.

Looking around I couldn’t for the life of me see where a helicopter was planning on landing, but I knew if there was one thing the locals would have down to perfection, then that would be rescues from mountainous terrain. Another thing I could count on would be a well equipped hospital with plenty of practise in dealing with knee injuries. All this of course was far to the back of my mind, foremost was the fact that, despite my absolute determination to keep going and finish the race, my body just wasn’t strong enough; that, though my mind - ridiculously imaginative as it was - was willing to continue, I just couldn’t keep putting one foot in front of another any longer.

Shortly afterwards there was a burst of frantic Italian from the base radio and soon the clattering of a helicopter sounded up the valley towards me. From way down below came the sight of a white helicopter, the helmeted crew looking out the side windows for a suitable landing spot. Still I couldn’t see a flat bit of land - we on a ledge, cut out into the slope of the mountain with a sort of lean to shelter, below the land sloped off at a 45 degree angle.  That of course posed no problem to the Italian pilot, who landed with one wheel on the grass, the rest of the aircraft suspended over the mountain whilst the medical crew jumped out and ran up to me. A quick examination later, a morphine like lollipop and I was helped down the slope to where the aircraft landed previously. It was hugely disconcerting to see this massive craft come back down and hover slightly above and to the side of us then slowly creep in until the doors were right in front of me, the rotors whirling above barely missing the upslope side of the mountain.

I remember thinking how good a story it would make if the pilot made a slight miscalculation in his approach, but quickly dismissed that thought when I realised it would also result in my dying a fiery death. And that certainly wasn’t even in my day one scenarios.

Quickly and unceremoniously dragged into the helicopter and strapped in, I was very shortly looking straight out the side door at the valley floor nearly 2000m below. On the short ten minute journey to Aosta hospital I barely had time to dwell on how I actually felt, but one emotion that wasn’t far below the surface was despair. I do tend to wear my heart on my sleeve and this race had been everything to me for the past five days. To have it go from possible to impossible in such a short period of time was incredibly hard to take. I was trying to put a brave face on it as the heli crew were still trying to make sure I was comfortable, but all I felt like doing was burying myself inside my jacket and hiding away. But it wasn’t to be, as we landed at Aosta and I was delivered into the excellent hands of the Italian Hospital system.

Several hours later, having been scanned, poked, prodded and injected I was delivered by taxi back to my hotel to be left to my own devices. I had a letter in hand with appropriately Italian medical terms which sounded remarkably like their equivalent in English. Distortion. Menisco. Banjaxed. Ok, so I made up the last one.

But essentially I had been given a best case and a worst case scenario, three to eight months out. Surgery. MRI. And sitting in a hotel room hundreds of miles from home, far away from your loved ones, whilst the race you’ve focused on for months was still running, is no place to be while you contemplate not only being out of the sport you love, but what it means for your life outside of the sport. How long would I be off work? How would I get around if I couldn’t drive? Am I being selfish in doing something that benefits only me, but potentially can cause angst to those who love me? Well those are questions still to answer, I suspect I shall have plenty of time to ponder them in the coming months.

So that was my Tor, not quite what I had in mind when I toed the start line the previous Sunday but it was such an incredible race I’m not sure I would have chosen not to start, even with the knowledge of what would happen if I raced. For that week was incredible.

The Italian people were incredible and I had the great fortune to spend a great deal of time on my own in one of the most beautiful places on earth. To experience a supermoon cresting an 11,000 ft peak on a cloudless night, to look down on 2000m high alpine lakes and to run for hours through forested mountains with only the faint sound of cowbells for company, well I’m sure it’s not everyones cup of tea but there’s no greater nourishment for my soul. It’s just my body that needs a little help.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

About The Author

Gary Dalton

Gary Dalton is a rugby loving, crime fighting, white Irish Muslim ultra runner. Despite all this he's not a complete eejit. 

Gary is originally from the west of Ireland and can't actually remember when he moved to London - he blames a heavy diet of being tackled by prop forwards and potatoes for the memory loss. He hates going out for runs, canals and borderline hypothermia and loves ice cream and going out for runs. 

 
 
 
 
 

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