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Tor de force: Natalie White's story of running Tor des Geants

by natsmountain
Thursday 29th September 2016
This is an extract from Natalie's blog about the event. You can read the full version at her website here

As I sit down and write this, I feel that words can't actually describe how I felt or what I thought during the whole Tor des Geants (TOR).
The TOR is advertised as 330km with 24,000m ascent. But is actually closer to 340km and the tracker showed 30,990m of ascent. Either way it's a brutal but spectacular race in the mountains around the Aoste valley.
There were seven major life bases along the route. These were mainly so you could meet your crew and your special yellow Grivel pack filled with clothes and food. This bag was transported to each life base for you. I decided to split the race up in to seven sections, easier for the mind to handle. The sections could take anywhere between 10hrs to 24hrs.
Courmayeur – Valgrisenche:                 50 km 4747 D+
Valgrisenche – Cogne:                          58 km 5082 D+
Cogne – Donnas:                                  45 km 2698 D+
Donnas – Gressoney St Jean:              54 km 6086 D+
Gressoney St Jean – Valtournenche:   33 km 3187 D+
Valtournenche – Ollomont:                   48 km 4904 D+
Ollomont – Courmayeur:                      50 km 4210 D+
So how do you train for such an epic race? Since finding out that I was accepted in to the race I sat down with Robbie (my wonderful boyfriend and as he would say "coach") to plan training and racing up until the big race.
In a nutshell since April I have trained consistently week upon week averaging 60miles, between 21,000 to 24,000m ascent and around 14hrs of running per week. Give or take a few weeks of races, but this consistently has lasted around 18 weeks! 


Courmayeur – Valgrisenche:                 50 km 4747 D+
I woke up the morning of the race in pretty good spirits, but I could tell I was nervous and getting slightly emotional. I mean a whole week of running in the mountains "not knowing" is a tad scary for my liking. It was warm, the sun was shining and I knew it was going to be a hot day. The key at the start was to not set off like a dick head, like a lot of the others, and take it super easy. So I did. Steady away up the first climb to Col Arp 2571m in the middle of the field overtaking loads of people, feeling great, eating pain au chocolat, haribo, drinking and taking two S-Caps an hour.
The first place I saw Robbie and Majell was La Thuile at 18.6km in a little checkpoint. I trotted inside the building, drank three cups of cola, ate a protein bar, told them everyone was sprinting, got a Rosa leg wash [Rosa is Natalie’s dog], then trotted back out listening to some crazy dance music. It was good to see their faces!
The next part after La Thuile was all climbing up to 2857m, an extremely technical leg bashing downhill section, then another fu*k off climb back up to 2829m. I knew that these were the types of ascents and descents I'd need to get used to for a whole week. 
The run to the first life base was gradually uphill, runnable, tiring and getting dark. I actually couldn't be bothered to stop to put on my proper head torch, so instead used the Petzl e-lite for an hour in the woods... I'd not been eating carrots in the lead up, so seeing was slightly blurry...
Valgrisenche appeared and it was slightly chaotic there with runners, volunteers, support crew all running round like headless chickens... I got changed, sat down with Robbie and Majell and had some well earned dinner. I don't recall eating that much only chewing for some time... Potatoes and ham with a bit of cheese, espresso, lucozade, cola and cake.
The guys picked me up, walked me to the door and I set off in to the night... Only knowing I was heading for a long night in the mountains with other crazy like minded people.

Nats day 4

Valgrisenche – Cogne:                          58 km 5082 D+
What a bast***d this section was! All apart from the last Col was in the dark. I ran into trouble after setting off by not being able to eat anything. A boiled sweet produced too much saliva, a haribo sweet couldn't be chewed or swallowed... I just tried to keep moving to the first refuge where I had a coffee and a biscuit, then bossed my way up to  2854m before a long technical steep section of down hill to Rhêmes N.D.
The next Col was at 3002m and I still couldn't eat much food, only a small nibble of a biscuit the whole way up. I was passing people being sick along the trail and I did then think that it must be the altitude that was getting to people. Along the route I had met a couple of very nice girls - Petra and Elisabet - and I could tell we were going to be together for most of the way. Petra overtook me up the long tedious climb to Col Entrelor and then curled up in a ball and went to sleep! "Petra what are you doing? It's cold and you can't sleep there, keep moving girl" Petra then decided it wasn't a great idea and kept on moving.
Col Losson at 3299m was the highest part of the TOR. About 3.5hrs worth of climb, slow and steady and hyperventilating near the top. Yes it was an utter bas***d. I couldn't eat once again, only when I sat down on a few rocks and ate a bounty bar very slowly. I was really struggling. Petra was flying ahead at this point, she was doing great!
I finally started descending to Cogne, around a 1700m descent. My quads were on fire, the muscles were popping out of my skin. How on earth could I carry on with my legs feeling like like??

Nats blisters

Cogne – Donnas:                                  45 km 2698 D+
In the life base at Cogne I was pampered by Robbie and Majell. A foot rub from Robbie and Majell made me a Pot Noodle, whilst Rosa just stared at every mouthful. My appetite was back and I was hungry. Pot Noodle, pasta and some cake, followed by lucozade and an espresso. I managed a little 20min nap and I was good to go. Well apart from the quads, they were extremely painful.
Day became night very quickly and the head torch was on. I had no idea how far there was to go to a checkpoint at Chardonney at 133.2km, only by looking at my altimeter. It was a bloody long way. To greet me by surprise was my wonderful team... My eyes lit up as I saw Robbie, Majell and Rosa... Tails were wagging and they were excited to see me. A brief stop and chat, lucozade, Fanta, ham and cheese with a random kit check for five mins.
I was off in to the night, legs and now feet on fire. Each step was so painful, but somehow I just kept moving. The next 18km was sh*t. Boulders, rocks, Tarmac, short climbs, descents etc. Maybe it would have been nice by itself but not in a 338km race. Petra now overtook me again... I was getting confused, as I thought she was ahead of me. Maybe the lack of sleep wasn't helping my brain.
After many hours of pain I finally arrived at the lowest part of the course and life base of Donnas at 330m and 151.3km in to the race. My face painted a picture of how I was feeling.
Foot rub, pot noodle, cake, lucozade, espresso x 2, massage and 90min sleep. I felt like a gremlin and more than likely looked like one too. I decided to wear the Hoka Speedgoat for some extra protection and comfort on what I was calling my hooves, I could barely put my hooves flat on the floor. Oh dear.

Tor day 2 2

Donnas – Gressoney St Jean:              54 km 6086 D+
Now I remember Nickademeus Holland and Joe Grant both saying that if I could recce this section that would help and get a feel for one of the toughest or longest sections. Well I couldn't get to see it, but I'd done a lot of research so I thought I was ready.
Heading out of Donnas it was still night, I met Rosa on the road, she went mental seeing me as usual, and it was really nice, she gave me energy! This section was all uphill. It was bloomin hard work. The climb started at 334m and went to 2224m Refugio Coda and was officially the half way mark, woo hoo. 
The descent was hard work and also had a few naughty short sharp climbs before descending to a beautiful lake, Lago Vargno. There was a little climb to a checkpoint and refuge, Rif Balma at 2040m. I was welcomed by my wonderful crew and had a wash from Rosa's tongue, nice. I managed to eat two ham and cheese sandwiches, lucozade, cola and coffee. This was a point where I knew I was in pain, feeling tired and also feeling more and more hungry.
The next section was really tough, both mentally and physically. There were kind of three climbs and two descents, which were not very big on the map, but in reality were long, steep, rough and tiring. I really struggled to get up and down these climbs. My left ankle was very sore. I couldn't bend it to move properly and every step was excruciating. On the 611m descent in to Niel I phoned Robbie, "Hello Robbie, I have a situation, I have a potential overuse injury, I can't bend my ankle, I can't run, I can't walk, I don't know what to do..." His words were reassuring and said it didn't matter I couldn't run, everyone was hurting, just keep moving, get to Niel and see how I feel. I think the bad parrot was playing with me at this point!
I arrived at Niel just as dark was approaching. I was surprised to see people who had passed me hours ago still at this checkpoint, they were tired. I ate a big bowl of pasta, cola, coffee and some cake. Filled up my bottles, packed some cake and biscuits and decided to just blast the section from Niel to Gressoney, the next life base, which was a 791m climb followed by a 1000m descent.
Now I'm not sure what happened over this section other than I felt so good, ankle miraculously felt better, ate well, ran well and sprinted the last 1km on the road. It must have been the pasta!
I met Robbie and Majell in the big sports hall. They were ready for me, turkey pasta, cola and lucozade. Clarins foot massage and a proper sports massage, before Robbie tucked me up in bed for a 90 min sleep. That didn't feel that long and I felt like a gremlin again, oh well. My right ankle was now sore and I couldn't put it flat on the floor, I did just end up laughing at the state I was in. 
Another night section, but soon morning would appear, oh how I liked the day light hours much better for the mind!

Nats day 4

Gressoney St Jean – Valtournenche:   33 km 3187 D+
I set off in to the night, a long flattish section before a 1447m climb to Col Pinter, I soon realised I was sleepy tired and couldn't stay awake. Elisabet soon passed me weaving all over the trail and told me to have a sleep at the next refuge, which wasn't too far away.
I made it to Rif Alpenzu at 1788m and asked the nice lady if I could sleep for 20mins. This passed so fast and I asked for another 20mins, I really was shattered. A large piece of cake and an espresso with sugar and I was soon on my way again. Morning was approaching, it was cold and I was glad I was wrapped up well in my new Patagonia Nano jacket I bought before the TOR.
Champoluc checkpoint was very quiet, so I didn't hang around for long. I marched up to St Jacques realising that I had now completed 225.4km, the furthest I had ever been by a country mile. I celebrated with myself and had a bounty bar and some haribo, washing it down with cola. Living the high life.
The next section was all uphill to a nice Refuge, Rif Grand Tourmalin at 2535m. I was feeling good passing a few of the men up the climbs to the refuge, I was enjoying myself. Now the run to the next life base at Valtournenche was super hard work. It was a descent of 1244m, with lots of rocks and quite steep. My quads felt trashed and so did my feet. Every step I was swearing and getting annoyed by the fact that some men would come sprinting passed me like I wasn't moving. It was time to phone Robbie for a bad parrot moment again.
As I arrived in Valtournenche I'd ditched that bad parrot, it was annoying me. I wandered in to the life base to find Robbie and Majell waiting for me. They'd got a pizza too, only half, don't know where the other half went... Pot noodle, pizza and cake tasted so good! I was so sleepy at this point I really wanted sleep, but Robbie assured me that I needed a quick turn around so I could get out before dark. I was not a happy bean however I listened to him and had a 20min power nap whilst he rubbed my feet and Rosa washed my arms. With only two sections left this was it, I was on my way to the finish, now I meant business!

Nats day 2 2

Valtournenche – Ollomont:                   48 km 4904 D+
I walked out of the life base tired, but I knew if I took this first climb easy I would be fine. I'd packed my super awesome Norrona jacket this time round as thunder storms were forecast, so wanted to be properly dry if it did rain heavy.
The first climb was a doddle and so was the next before dark approached. I arrived at a refuge ate some cake, drank coffee and prepared for the rain that may arrive later on. All was going well so far. Then an hour or so later it started to rain and get heavier and heavier. I met a lady who was running towards me, she'd got disorientated, so I stopped to help and also make sure she was ok. We hiked to the Col at 2738m and descended the other side. We couldn't see much as the rain was bad and it was foggy. We stopped so she could change her torch battery and then she ran off and left me... Typical!!
I arrived at a refuge at 2007m Rif Magià. I didn't have time to put my waterproof gloves on, so my gloves were wet, damn. Everyone was sopping wet and cold. I was actually dry! I had a sleep of 50min here, knowing there was a long way to go in the night and a nibble of a sandwich the guys gave me. It was cold and wet outside and no one really wanted to go back outside, but it had to be done.
I put some merino arm warmers on and made them in to gloves, with waterproof gloves on. Now I was toasty.
Another climb to another refuge at 2656m, where I made ham and cheese wraps and they had conversations with each other... I think I was a tad tired again.
The next section I felt sleepy tired, trying to stay awake. The wind was super windy so kept low on the exposed sections and kept looking out for lights for the next check point. The never ending ups and downs before I spotted some lights. Sprinting to the front door and leaping through I was welcomed by two Italian men cooking pasta, making tea. It was a nice friendly feeling. I asked one of the men if I could sleep. I took off my damp clothes and threw myself on the bunk beds, wrapping myself up like Rosa does in her bed. 60min later I was awake, coffee and biscuit in my hands I was feeling good.
Oyace at 274.4km was a checkpoint where I was meeting the guys. I'm so glad we arranged to meet here. The rain was heavier than earlier, the paths were now rivers and my feet were getting wet. It was Pot Noodle and lucozade time and also time to dry off before going back out in the rain. It was good to see the guys, as it gave me a morale boost. I had a little sleep here and made sure I was well rested before headed to the last life base at Ollomont, woo hoo!!
There was a big climb and a bigger descent to Ollomont. I was on my own, Billy no mates again, so just kept on pushing pushing all the way. It was getting harder to keep going, but knowing the last section was making it all the more exciting to just keep moving forward.

Nat TDG 3

Ollomont – Courmayeur:                      50 km 4210 D+
This was it... I was at the last life base, I couldn't believe it. Emotions running high. I took a shower to freshen up and ate two bowls of pasta here. Cake, lucozade, cola and two espressos. I wanted sleep, but Robbie wouldn't let me, how mean.
I set off up the road, this was it, I was going towards the finish!
There was a big climb as ever to Col Champillon at 2709m followed by a long descent and lots of flat running to Saint Rhemy en Bosses at 308.6km. I ate a lot of Power shots with caffeine, they tasted good and I also needed to stay awake. It was a long section and night would soon be approaching. The flat section was hard, however I managed to run most of it, maybe down to my banging dance music on the iPod....
I soon arrived at the checkpoint now in the dark. I felt chilled and relaxed. I could smell Courmayeur! A plate of pasta and half a bag of crisps tasted so good. If only that was every meal... The next time I would see the guys would be at the finish, how emotional!
I set off from the checkpoint with too many clothes on, so stripped off as I was walking up the road. The road got darker and the trail got narrower. I could see the lights at the Rifugio Frassati. They didn't get any closer though only seemed to be getting further away. I was sleepy tired again and started weaving from side to side up the trail. I had to shout at myself to stay awake and sing really loud. At one point I was counting to ten and back down and back to ten until I reached the refuge. I was one happy lady reaching that refuge. I just walked in and asked for a bed to sleep. Maybe an hour in total, maybe less. I was grateful for all their help as they were a nice bunch of people. I sat down by a fire to put on my shoes and coat whilst eating cake and drinking coffee, when they asked if I could wait for the next woman before setting off to the last Col. The weather was raining, foggy and windy. I said of course as if that's the only way to leave and its safest then that's what I have to do.
We set off to Col Malatra 2936m in pea soup fog. It was a tad difficult to see, but I knew the path from the summer months, so was confident I knew where to go. The pace was a bit too slow and I was getting cold. But I had to stick with the other lady. We got towards the Col and an Alpine Guide appeared out of the fog. He was there for four days helping the runners at this point, what a star! He told me I was strong and didn't need any help, but told me to wait at the Col for the lady. The Col felt pretty wonderful being there. Wow, I had made it to here, I was emotional!
Eventually we set off from the Col and headed down to the little bivouac at Malatrà. Once again I had lots of cake and this time tea, I think I was starting to get more hungry, maybe because I was cold and using more energy to keep warm. The little climb was slow again with a long descent in pea soup fog to the Bonatti/Bertone balcony. The weather had improved and I needed to keep moving, so I picked up the pace, whilst eating most of the food I had left and just kept trucking. Rifugio Bertone seemed so far away, night was turning in to dawn and my head torch had just died. Bertone appeared, lots of helpers and no other runners. I ate cake, drank tea and ran down the rocky long trail towards Courmayeur. I passed two runners, who were suffering, had a quick chat and was on my way. I stopped by a fountain and had a quick wash, I was burning up. The finish was so close yet still felt so far.
As I entered the town I saw Robbie and Majell and Rosa ran towards me. I filled up with tears, this was it, I was going to finish the biggest race of my life. The guys ran alongside me shouting and screaming so loud, instead of crying I was laughing so loud. It was such a wonderful moment. Rosa ran ahead to let the finish know I was on my way. 
The finish, no words can describe that feeling of crossing the finish line. It was such a wonderful experience that I've never experienced before. An emotional roller coaster journey of 118hrs, 338km, 30,999m (ascent), meeting new people, seeing amazing views, pushing my body through pain I've never experienced before. I couldn't have been on this amazing journey without Robbie, Majell and Rosa. They were my rocks!

Total Sleep/rest
Rhemes Notre Dame 65.6km - closed eyes 10min (night)
Eaux Rousses 81.4km - closed eyes 20min (dawn)
Cogne 106.2km - slept 20min (daytime)
Donnas 151.3km - slept 1.5hrs (night)
Gressoney 205.9km - slept 1hr 40min (night)
Rif Alpenzu 210km - slept 40min (night)
Valtournenche 239km - slept 20min (daytime)
Rif Cuney 259.9km - slept 50min (night)
Biv Clermont 264km - slept 60min (night)
Oyace - closed eyes 20min (day)
Rif Frassati 317.4km - slept 50min (night)
= 8hrs in 118hrs

Photos and video by Majell Backhausen and Robbie Britton

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