Friday, September 21, 2012

TDG Race Report - Part Two


So we left Valgrisenche at about 3 am which only gave us a 4 hour time cushion...and we were slowing down.  We headed up toward Col Fenetre which would pretty much take us the rest of the night. 

I tell you what...there are a lot of stone slabs set in the ground to hike up these mountains.  I really liked that, and was really grateful for all of the stair training that Coach Cal had me do.  Nicki Rehn told me before this race to do lots and lots of stairs and that is what I did.  Running stairs, walking stairs, wearing leg weights and a weight vest while doing all helped!

As we hauled butt up the mountain in the headlamp picked up these unusual long, black, shiny things that looked like poop.  Turns out they were about 3 inch long slugs that were leaving a slimy trail behind them as they moved on the rock steps!  I avoided them ... but there were plenty of people who had not seen them and had stepped on them...leaving behind a black, gooey mess with what looked like white strings of guts.  Gross.

We arrived at a chalet and decided to take a brief nap, since I hadn't slept yet.  Rif chalet de l'epee was a great place to take a break.  Warm and inviting, it was a little piece of heaven in the cold darkness.  The volunteers took great care of us, and I lay down on the floor to take a 30 minute sleep.  I never have any trouble falling asleep anywhere, a gift during these types of races.  My alarm woke me up exactly 30 minutes later.  Refreshed, I had a quick cup of hot chocolate and we were off.

By now it was dawn...about 7 am.  We had to make our way up the rest of the way to the top of Col Fenetre...2854 meters.  There was a lot of scree as we headed up...and once again I was slowly picking my way up through the rocks.  Where to place this foot, where to place that foot.  I am just not a natural.  Jim was stopping and waiting for me at regular intervals. 

By now my chest was aching.  I was putting my hand on my chest plate and pressing in...almost feeling like I was trying to heal myself.  My head was plugged, my nose was running, I kept spitting up phlegm, my headache was constant...and Jim was worse.

We finally made it to the top and looked around...what a sight!  Behind us we could see a massive valley down below with the huge field of rocks we had just come through.  Ahead of us was my worst nightmare!  The steep downhill ascent on this mountain made me want to vomit.  I could not believe it.  I had a brief moment of panic.  I looked at Jim and I said..."There is no way I can get down this!"  I had never seen or done anything like it.

I had read a few books before leaving for this trip about the Navy Seals.  I am really fascinated with the Special Forces units around the world...and like to read about their training and missions.  One of the quotes that was inspiring me for this trip was from the Navy Seals...

                                                 "The only easy day was yesterday."

I had this in my head during my six months of training...and felt it would be great during this race as well. 

I may have read one too many books on this subject.  I was trying to think of an escape off the top of this pass, when I visualized a helicopter coming to my aid.  It hovered above me and a soldier dropped down a rope ladder.  It swung above my head and I reached up and grabbed the furst rung on the ladder.  The helicopted lifted up and pulled me off the ground, and I started to sway back and forth in the air.  I was afraid of letting go of the ladder, but it was better than trying to make my way down that pass!

Well, no such luck.  I was going to have to hoof it down the path...and I felt sick about it.  It was probably about 1000 meters of going straight down on narrow switchbacks.  What was amazing to me is that there was a trail here...meaning people regularly did this route.  Are you kidding me?!  Jim talked and walked me through it.  The only way I could keep going was to stare directly down at my feet and not look anywhere else.  This was pushing the envelope for me...which was sickening and exciting all at the same time.  This is what living on the edge means!

I saw a metal fence line set up in the boulders off to the side...they sort of looked like snow fences that we had up in Canada to prevent avalanches.  These were meant to do the same I guess (landslides), but I initially thought they were there to block the falls of people like me...I could just see myself bouncing off the rocks and smashing up against the fence...arms and legs everywhere at odd angles.  (I think I am going to be sick)

We made it down through the tough part and we stopped in a grassy area to eat.  I am always starving.  I dug out some chips and we started to talk about what we were up against.  Jim was sick and I was sick...and we were getting sicker.  We were also getting slower.  I told Jim he had to go on ahead.  He refused...saying that although he was faster than me right now...he was also in a lot of pain.  He felt like he had fractured a bone in his right foot.  He could barely walk on it and was on some pretty major pain killers.

We worked our way down the mountain to another really picturesque Alpine village...the location of the next checkpoint...Rhemes n.d.  It is so beautiful here, so green and so clean.  We made our way up the street through town to the CP building.  Once inside they scanned our race bands and we sat down to eat.  We had gone 64.5 kilometers now and it had taken us 24 hours!!!!  Crazy. 

Jim did not think that we were going to make it to the next lifebase before the cutoff.  We still had to make it up and down two more passes...including Col Loson.  I really wanted to make it up to Col Loson because it was the highest pass on the course and it would put us at about 1/3 of the way into the race...about 100 km. 

At a certain age, at least as it applies to begin to become practical.  Over the years you push yourself hard...and you know what you have inside of you.  I know when I can push forward...and I can accept when it just is not going to come together for a given race.  This race was over for us before we left Florida.  Jim got terribly sick...and then I became sick.  Not only that, but for me, I was just too cautious, and therefore slow in this terrain.

This race had been was everything everyone said it was and more!  I loved it...but I was not going to be able to finish it.  It sucks...but c'est la vie.  If I were to move to a place where I had mountains in my backyard I would come back and compete in this race again and finish it with surer footing.  I would also make sure that I was topped up with Vitamin C a month before the event!  But that isin't going to happen.  And besides, I am a desert runner and love being in the desert.  It is time to go back to the sand and the sun!!!

We approached the front desk and told them we were not going to be able to continue.  They sympathised with us and then proceeded to cut off our wrist bands.  A shuttle bus was going to be by in an hour to come and pick us up, and until then we decided to head down the street and get a soda.

We arrived back in Courmayeur late afternoon, picked up our race bags, had a nice bath and went to the market to pick up some things for supper. The owner of the Hotel we were staying at had a gift for us...she had gift wrapped some massage cream for us.  She had done this for every athlete staying at her hotel.  Can you believe it?!  Josey, you are a doll!!!

 The following morning (Tuesday) we spent the day making arrangements to head to Florence on Wednesday.  We weren't supposed to head there until Sunday.  But there was no sense killing time in Courmayeur.  We had already spent a few days here before the race.  But there was some business to take care of.  Which flavor of Gelato should we try?  We couldn't make up our minds on just one or two we ended up getting two dishes with 6 flavors in all!

Vanilla, Italian Vanilla, Pistachio, Hazelnut, Dark Chocolate and Banana.The Gelato, along with a strong cup of Italian coffee, and we were jacked!  Onward to Florence!!!

As it turned out, the race provided some extreme challenges for organizers and competitors alike this year.  The race had to be stopped once due to a landslide.  And then mother nature struck with howling winds and snow, preventing runners from climbing up to the last pass of the course.  Organizers had to stop the race again, and then ended up cutting the course short by 30 kilometers.  The race ended this year in St. Rhemy.

Congratulations to all of the competitors...and to all of my new friends who all did so well!!!!  It was so much fun...and I really hope I will see you all again one day....but you will have to come to the desert to find me!!!!  Hugs from Florida!!!!!

 My next blog is going to be about the time I spent in Florence and Venice...healing, resting, eating, and sunning in beautiful Italy!!!  And let's not forget the wine!

Thursday, September 20, 2012

TDG Race Report - Part One


This race has got to be one of the best events on the planet!  It is definately in the Top 5 of all the races I have ever done!  Right now I have so much to say, that I feel at a loss for words...where to start?

I arrived on Courmayeur, Italy on Thursday...which gave me a few days to acclimate before the race started on Sunday.  I have already posted about what a spectacular town this is, situated in a beautiful region of Italy.  It was very enjoyable seeing the sights here and enjoying the alpine flair of the area, but dominating the time here was the pending competition. 

All of the athletes started to arrive on Friday, and flooded into town on Saturday.  The closer the race got, the more excited I became!  I felt very confident.  I knew I had trained hard...and I was happy with my gear and food choices.  Before the race I had trained in all the new gear I had acquired and was already familiar with all of the food I was bringing.

For each day of the race I was bringing along 2 lbs of food!  But I felt that my pack was not too heavy.  Before I left home I weighed it with everything in it except water, and it was 8 pounds and 8 ounces.  For desert racing my pack was 15 pounds starting out, so half the weight was really a piece of cake.

On Saturday, all of the athletes had to head over to the sports centre to register.  Our race chips were attached to our wrists like hospital bands, and we got our race bibs...Lucky number 583!!!  I had seen the infamous yellow TDG duffle bag in previous pictures, and now had one of my own...LOVE IT!  Sorry to get so excited, but I just Love Race Swag!  We also got the best technical race T-shirt I have ever seen.  On the one hand I want to wear it everywhere...and on the other, I want to keep it in the closet and just bring it out once in awhile to stare at it because it is just that awesome!

We brought the race bag back to the hotel and began to stuff it with the extra things we thought we might need as we got to each lifebase.  Comfort food, extra clothing, extra gear and batteries.  God, did the bag get smaller from last year?  It wasn't big enough for everything I wanted to have handy!  So then I had to start over, deciding which items absolutely had to be there and regretfully getting rid of the rest of the other "must-have" items.

At 6pm we lugged the bags back to the sports centre to check in.  The next time we saw those bags would be at the first lifebase in Valgrisenche.  The pasta dinner was being held here too, but Jim and I did not want to stay for that.  I have traditionally avoided the pre-race meals...just to escape some of the hype.  I usually like to have a quiet evening the night before a race, and go to bed early. 

We hit up a great restaurant that the North American runners like to frequent here...The Pizzeria du Tunnel.  We each had a fabulous bowl of Spaghetti Bolognese and some red wine.  After that, back to the hotel and to bed.

Sunday morning dawned bright and sunny....Race Day at last!!!!  The event begins at a very respectable 10am.  Plenty of time to get up, get ready, have a great last breakfast, coffee, and head over to the race start.  Jim and I never run together.  We always part ways as we approach the start line and we did the same today.  We said our goodbyes and Jim disappeared into the crowd of runners.

I was very worried about him.  He had come down with an acute case of bronchitis back in Florida, and had still not been able to shake it off.  He had a deep hacking cough that emanated from deep within his lungs and invariably brought up large gobs of yellow phlegm.  Neither of us really discussed how he was going to be able to get by in the race, because it was what it was.  Push ahead and see what happened was all that he could do.

I headed over the the church steps at the start and sat down to enjoy the race commotion.  I loved savoring the excitement and nervous anticipation of all the athletes.  Everyone had trained so hard for so long, and now the race was imminent.  Everyone here could share in the moment, because as they say... just getting to the start is an epic achievement!

All of a sudden Jim came rushing over.  What was he doing here?  He asked me if I had gone to the tent to have them scan by race band for timing?  Duh....No!  Oh my God...I had completely forgotten!  He had too, and came running to find me because he figured I wouldn't think of it.  Can you imagine?!!!  I pushed my way over and they scanned the band for me and that ate up some more pre-race time and helped inch us closer to 10am. 

And then the countdown was upon us...backwards from 10 in Italian.  This was it!  I had watched the race video a hundred times and now here it was for real!  And then we were off!  Running through town to the cheers of hundreds of supporters and townspeople.  It felt simply epic!  A short run on pavement brought us to the trailhead of Col Arp.

There were so many runners that we were basically all backed up in a line and were forced to travel a certain speed for what seemed like miles.  All of us just steadily climbing up and up and up.  No one seemed to be too disturbed about going a certain speed with all the others.  I think we all knew that there was no need to get antsy when we had 6 days ahead to race.  It was a matter of biding our time and letting the race string out.

Along the way there were still supporters out in full force, yelling encouraging words and ringing cowbells.  We saw many herds of cows along the way here, and with cows, comes cow crap.  Lots of it.  And you could tell by the footprints left behind that many peope were stepping in the cow crap.  (Mental not step in cow crap because you will smell like cow crap for a long time.)

I got to the top of Col  Arp and was really pumped...this was a blast!  And the views were incredible!  I love this race!  So far, so good!!!  It was a 2571 meter climb and I had done a great deal of huffing and puffing.  But I felt strong and was ready for more...bring it on!

The descent from here seemed quick and easy if I recall correctly.  The next Col was Passo Alto...2857 meters.  This area was everything I had dreamed it would be.  It was breathtakingly beautiful...a stunning waterfall cascading down the mountain into the valley, with flowers everywhere.  There was something to look at with every turn in the path.  This was heaven on earth.  I breathed in the mountain air and felt lucky to be here experiencing this.  The sun was shining, and all was well. 

But then on the way down from Passo Alto I began to experience a terrible headache.  My nose was beginning to run alot, and my breathing was turning into hacking and wheezing.  I headed up Col Crosatie and was beginning to slow down.  There were some serious scree fields here...what looked like miles and miles of rock in very steep terrain.

I was beginning to understand that you can do all the training you want to become stronger, but unless you train in mountains you are not going to be able to simulate mountain conditions.  By that I mean technical footing with rocks and roots and steep ascents and descents.  Many people who do this race are like mountain goats.  They play in mountains everyday, and can bounce through technical areas with ease and grace. 

I am a desert runner.  I feel like a gazelle that can bound through desert savanna and sail though sand and heat...but am like a fish out of water in rock and more rock.  I have plenty of sand to train on in my backyard...but no mountains.  I have never tained in mountains.

I did one other mountain race in my lifetime, and that was the Canadian Death Race.  That was back in 2004.  I never trained in the mountains for that race either.  It is a 125 kilometer race in the Canadian Rockies that goes up and down 3 mountains.  You have 24 hours to complete the course.  That race was a cake walk compared to what I had done so far here at TDG. 

Anyway I was managing the course, but not going very fast anymore.  I am terrified of breaking an ankle.  I am so terrified, that is might even be a phobia.  In my minds eye I can see shards of bone sticking out of my leg...and it scares me to I go slow through rock.  I made it to the top of Col Crosatie and began my descent.

I arrived at a CP and stopped to put my headlamp on and my fleece jacket.  The volunteers here, as at other CP's were fantastic!  I had some hot soup and it made my throat feel a little better.  One woman here, her name was Rosie...was just fantastic in helping me out.  And it made my day to make friends with some of the herding dogs here that were hanging out near the food table snapping up bits of scraps.  I miss my dog!!!  It was here that I also met two friends that I had made through facebook....Julia Baykova and Vincenzo Bertina.  It was great to get a hug and a kiss from Julia...who is about the sweetest person you could ever meet!  I headed out refreshed and made my way toward the first lifebase...Valgrisenche. 

I have to say at this point that the trails on this course are incredibly well marked.  There are markers in some areas that almost tell you which step to take next and in the scree fields we had just come through.  There are the traditional yellow flags everywhere.  There are yellow arrows painted on rock, and there are small wooden squares that have been pounded into the rock.  There were also small rock cairns everywhere.  It was fantastic.

At night though, I found it was a little tougher.  I kept looking for the next flag with my headlamp and it just didn't seem like there were enough.  I was always worried that I was going off course if I didn't immediately see another flag as I was passing one.  At one point I did get lost, following an Italian runner.  We were heading downhill forever and there weren't any flags.  He got on his phone and called another runner on the course.  Turned out both guys lived in the area.  The guy I was with got the right directions and we headed back up the mountain and back onto the correct path.

Just before I reached the lifebase I turned my ankle.  I went down in a heap and could feel the pain in my right ankle.  I knew immediately that it wasn't too serious, just a first degree sprain, but still enough to make me cautious again.

I arrived at the first lifebase at 2 am.  I had been on the trail now for 16 hours.  I am the 600th runner in and there are only 130 runners behind me.  I still have a 5 hour cushion heading out onto the next stage, but it makes me nervous knowing I am so far back.  I grabbed my yellow duffle bag and started rifling through it to grab some supplies.  Then I made my way over to the food table and got myself some pasta with tomato sauce.

I sat down at the picnic bench to eat when I sensed someone walking toward me.  I looked up and it was with shock that I realized it was Jim!  I thought he would be hours ahead of me.  Turns out he arrived at the lifebase a couple of hours ahead of me and and had stopped to take a nap.  He was in really bad shape.  His bronchitis was terrible...he was hacking so bad it was shaking his whole body up and he looked gaunt.  He was going to carry on but I was seriously worried that he was going to get pneumonia.  I didn't say anything was his call to make and he wanted to continue.

We decided to head out together.  We turned in our bags and headed out into the night.  By now my hacking was really bad as well.  I just could not get in enough air...and I was coughing up massive amounts of green phlegm.  I don't know if I was getting what Jim had or it was just a matter of dealing with the extreme effort in climbing these mountains.  Either way, it was becoming painful and difficult to breathe.

............WATCH FOR TDG RACE REPORT PART TWO TOMORROW.................

Saturday, September 8, 2012



Courmayeur is a little jewel in the crown that is the Italian Alps.  It is the prettiest little town you can ever imagine with quaint buildings featuring slate rooftops and every balcony holds little planters filled with red geraniums.  I find myself in heaven wandering down the narrow cobblestone streets, looking in the windows of all the cute little shops featuring everything from fresh cheese (Ahhhhhh, the cheese!) to designer clothing (Hermes?!) to tech shops with fantastic hiking gear (I'll take one of everything please)

Let me backtrack for a second.  Getting here was a "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" for me on this trip!  Everything went like clockwork.  Jim and I took a cab to the airport and we arrived early for our first flight, which took us from Fort Lauderdale, Florida to New York.  We had a layover in New York which seemed to go by really quickly and we had a bite to eat at a New York style diner that played 60's music. 

The flight from New York to Milan was surprisingly painfree.  The flight attendants were great, passengers were quiet, there were no screaming babies, and I watched a very touching movie to pass the time..."Darling Companion"  It is a real tear jerker about a woman who finds a dog on the freeway and adopts him.  (DUNE, I MISS YOU!)

I took a sleeping pill after the movie ended and slept through the entire flight.  I woke up for breakfast ( A teeny croissant with 4 pieces of fruit) and then swilled back some swill...(coffee).  There was a huge line waiting to get through customs for foreign visitors, and there were hardly any people waiting at the line for European Union residents.  So I took a chance and headed straight over to the que which only had 3 people in front of me.  When I got to the agent, he looked at my passport and said, " You are Canadian, you are in the wrong line."  I apologized profusely and explained I had not realized and did he really want to turn me away?  He looked at me, and I looked back at him...we both knew that he knew what I was up to.  He smiled, stamped my passport, and said "Go!"

My luggage was all there waiting for me...Hallelujah!!!!!!!!!!  I grabbed it, loaded it up and headed out the double doors to look for my driver.  It is not easy getting to Courmayeur from Milan.  Rather than deal with the hassle of buses and trains, Jim had hired a driver to take us straight north to the Alps.  Sure enough, Leonardo was waiting for us and we climbed into his Mercedes for the 2 hour drive.  I tried to stay awake to take in the scenery, but I slept the entire way.  I woke up and there was my home for the next few days....Hotel Croux.

Now back to what I was telling you about this little Italian town.  There are only about 3,000 people that live here.  Courmayeur sits in the Aosta Valley at the foot of Mont Blanc...Western Europe's highest mountain.  On the other side of Mont Blanc is the town of Chamonix, in France.  I have been here for two days now, and I love it!  The people are friendly and every store has a poster or sign up about the race.  I have restrained myself and have not done any shopping here, with the exception of buying a Tor des Geants T-shirt that I really like.

The food is amazing.  I have gone to the market a few times and bought fresh bread, tomatoes, mozzarella, artichokes, olives...well, you get the picture.  It is going to be embarrassing because I will be the only runner in the history of the event that will have to admit to gaining weight at the race.  I will have to practise some restraint.

 But did I mention the gelato shop?  Oh My!!!  I went in there just to look, but I haven't had any yet.  I am fantasizing about the experience...dwelling on what flavor I am going to try...or maybe I will just throw caution to the wind, get really crazy, and put two flavors together!!!  The Chocolate Nutella looks good, really good.  But then so does the Mango, and the Strawberry.  I have always liked Pistachio...and then there is banana, I could pair that with Chocolate and make my own Chunky Monkey.  So many choices...sometimes having a choice is not a good thing!

The start line is already up in town and I have already met some of the other runners.  For the first time in the history of the event, there are some Chinese runners.  I bumped into them yesterday.  I saw two athletic looking guys sitting on the church steps and as I walked by I asked if they were runners.  Turned out it was Daniel Probst and Bruce Grant sitting there taking in the day.  I have also bumped into Wade Repta whom I have raced with previous to this at the Marathon des Sables and at the Atacama Crossing.

Right now it is 2am and I can't sleep.  It is early Saturday morning and I go through race check-in at 2pm this afternoon.  I will get my race number and my bag that I will be able to stuff with stuff and it will be transported to each lifebase I go to during the race.  I am as ready as I'll ever be.  Of course, I look up at the mountains and think that maybe I could have trained harder, or done this or done that to prepare...but that is all just useless second guessing.

  I just want to start now and take this on.  I have heard a gizzilion times that this is the toughest race I will ever do, so I just want to finish the thing.  I have called on everything I know of to help me through hopefully all of the stars will align and I will be able to cross the finish line. There is an Arabic word I love that comes to mind right now as I write this...Inshallah...God Willing...
God Willing...I will finish this race... Inshallah. (Allah)

The race begins at 10am Sunday morning, and will end the following Saturday at 4 pm.  Good Luck to all of the other competitors and a Million Thanks to all of the volunteers who will be helping us along the are all amazing!!!!!!!!!!!!  (I am going to go to bed now...please let me sleep.  I will post again after the race.  Maybe it will seem like a dream...or maybe a nightmare?  I will let you know.)