I’m elated to welcome my wife Maureen Cane to GDTTFB as my first ever guest author!! While I flew home immediately after UTMB to jump back into life at home, she kept our summer magic going with a truly transcendental journey through the Aosta Valley in Italy at the Tor des Géants…. I hope you enjoy her incredible story below.
It was dark by the time I reached the col and the night breeze pushed the heavy fog straight into my face. The effect of my headlight beam made it feel like I was swimming through horizontal rain, but somehow not getting wet. I couldn’t see the trail through the thick fog, so I began to play a game where I would use my light to scan the horizon in search of a flickering reflective trail flag or yellow arrow painted on a rock to guide the direction of my next steps. And so I moved down toward Gressoney-Saint-Jean, linking one waypoint to the next, combing my way through the misty mountains. In fact, that’s precisely how I moved through the entire six days on the Tor des Géants course – from one moment, one breath, one flag, one col, one aid station, to the next. The task at hand was much too massive to consider in its entirety.
Tor des Géants (TOR for short) is a mountain trail race that follows two “haute route” trails around some of Italy’s most iconic 4,000-meter peaks; Monte Bianco, Cervino, Gran Paradiso, and Monte Rosa. The official race materials claim that the course covers 330 kilometers of technical mountain terrain with 24,000 meters of vertical climbing (that’s nearly 80,000 feet), although most runners who complete the counterclockwise loop around Aosta Valley track significantly more distance and vert. There are typical aid stations scattered throughout the course, but given the length of the race there are also seven “life bases” spaced every 50 kilometers that offer some relative “luxuries”; pasta, sleeping cots, showers, massages, access to crew and the notorious yellow duffle bag packed full of a runner’s clean clothes and spare gear. Racers must complete the loop in under 150 hours to be considered a finisher (and a Géant).
It was my fourth night on the course and I was operating on only a few hours of sleep since the race began, but I was enjoying my fun little adventure from one waypoint to the next. In the distance I could hear the chiming of bells, but like so many other times during the race I couldn’t discern if these were the bells of friendly volunteers welcoming runners into a village aid station or if there was a herd of cows ahead. The bells themselves were the same – large crafted metal inverse domes attached to a strip of ornately decorated leather – but the implications for us runners were markedly different. In this case, they were cowbells on cow necks (“Ciao cows!”), and I’d need to first wade through the network of fresh dung covered trails before reaching the human rung cowbells of the next aid station.
At one point during the long descent I was struck with the overwhelming feeling that I had been here before. Not simply to this physical location, but also to this exact sequence of events in time as they had unfolded. Something deep in my body remembered all of this; the fog and the sound of the bells, but also the nearly-full moon that would soon rise and illuminate the path to the next shepherd’s hut. Something about the familiarity of the experience felt warm and comforting on an otherwise cold and wet night, and yet my rational mind couldn’t make sense of what was happening.
Could I cognitively be processing my experiences at a different rate due to a lack of sleep?
Am I simply recalling a similar series of events that occurred earlier in the summer?
Maybe I am experiencing time as something far more fluid – spiraling or bendable perhaps?
These were the thoughts swirling through my head when I suddenly crossed paths with a young man traveling in the opposite direction towards the shepherd’s hut aid station. He was leading a mule by rope and the animal was loaded down with bundles of covered goods. The man himself was carrying an open-top woven basket filled with salami, hams and other cured meats. We both stopped to make room for the other on the narrow stone path, exchanged “ciaos” and then carried on toward our respective destinations. I had met this man before too.
In the days following the race, I gathered with our tribe of American runners to share pizzas, spritz and stories. We recounted some of the highs and lows of the week and the conversation would inevitably steer toward the notorious long-distance runner hallucination stories. I hadn’t seen faces on rocks or dancing puppets like the others, but I shared some details of my deja-vu moments with the man leading the mule up the climb. The look in everyone’s eyes said it all – they believed that those experiences were manifested in my own sleep-deprived imagination. I guess that could be the case, but I also know that my awareness was open to perceiving things differently, and perhaps I met a few companions from across the spacetime continuum that comforted and helped guide me along my path.
Back in May of this 2021, I dragged my family to Reno, Nevada, for the weekend to support my first 50-mile effort at the Silver State 50/50 Endurance Run. It was the perfect time to take the opportunity and meet my new running coach Peter in his lovely wooded Truckee backyard. On the eve of my first post-pandemic race, Coach Peter rattled off a slew of technical and logistical wisdom that left me feeling slightly nervous and underprepared. I’m driven to the wild corners of our planet mostly for the chance to connect to spirit, but also to find strength and perspective to help me navigate through my everyday world of urban living. I was suddenly questioning whether this nature-loving yogi approach would be enough to endure a season of trail running that would culminate with one of the world’s toughest races. I’d bitten off a lot (too much, according to some) when I registered for TOR. I lacked the years of base miles and racing experience that most runners bring to a bucket-list event like this, and Silver State was my first test piece. I would need to put all of my pre-race jitters aside and nail this race if I stood any chance of completing the bigger summer goals.
Sensing my nerves, my son Devin shared his 8-year-old wisdom from the backseat as we followed the highway to Reno. He first rattled off some motivational banter, but it was a mantra that he’d learned at school that really stuck with me and became a keystone of my training and racing this year:
I am PATIENT. I am PEACEFUL. I am PRESENT. I am POSITIVE.
On race day in Reno we were met with an unexpected lightning storm, a considerable drop in temperatures, and thick muddy conditions – all perfect training for TOR. I had to dig deep that day and I silently rolled these words and intentions over my breath as I shivered and climbed up to Peavine Summit for the third and final time before descending to the finish, even adding to my newfound mantra:
I am PERSISTENT.
I finished my first 50 miler in style, even running across the finish line backwards (why not?) and took this incredible boost of confidence and motivation with me into the following months. A frantic month of June saw us packing up our house and handing it over to renters before traveling all around the country to see family, and finally taking the long trip to settle in Trient, Switzerland, for a summer of training and living in our beloved Alps. Despite July being an abnormally rainy month in the Alps, I still managed to log a solid month of training in this new steep terrain, run my first 100 kilometer race (Gran Trail Courmayeur) and focus our family adventures around crystal hunting and mushroom foraging.
Mat and I spent a week in early August scouting the final 130km of the TOR course, and we both instantly fell in love with the rugged mountains and warm people of the Aosta Valley, as well as the lore behind the race. Somewhere in the final climb of the five day trip, while heading up to the famed Col Malatra, I felt a tightening in my left shin that forced me to hobble down into Courmayeur and left me unable to walk without pain for the next five weeks. This was the entirety of the month leading up to my big race, so I nixxed my ambitious training plans and fun family adventures, and fell into a rhythm of navigating the French medical system, soaking my leg in the nearby icy glacial torrent, and strengthening the parts of my body that could tolerate targeted asana and physical therapy.
The silver lining was that I got a chance to spend alone time in deep meditative rest and reflection, a real treat for my busy body and mind. Following Mat’s UTMB finish, he and the kids headed home to Berkeley to launch into the school year, and I stayed on by myself in our little chalet deep in the Alps. Somewhere between the visits to the doctor and the river, I found some peace with my situation. Eight months prior, the body of my friend (and two-time TOR finisher) Lucas Horan was found in the San Francisco Bay, and amidst my grief I felt a mysterious pull to experience this Italian race that meant so much to him. As the year progressed I was swept into the current of this new ambitious goal and I made TOR the center of my life. Now, with this injury, there was a solid chance that I wouldn’t be able to start the race – or if I did, that I wouldn’t make it very far. I had to be okay with that.
I continued the mental practice of putting in the effort while at the same time releasing any attachment to the outcome. And then one morning in early September I woke up without pain in my shin. This had happened occasionally throughout the past month but the fire in my leg would reignite again at the first hint of walking or running. This time I would practice patience. I waited a whole five days before lacing up my running shoes, and with less than a week before TOR’s September 12th start date I went on my first 2 mile test hike. Two days later I went on a short jog, and then the following day I ran our classic 2 hour training loop from the chalet to the Col de Balme. My quads were trashed from that single 1,000 meter descent (which didn’t bode well for TOR’s 24,000+ meters of descending), but my shin wasn’t hurting. And so it was decided – I would start TOR with a five week forced taper, and pray to the mountain gods to give me the strength of body and mind to accept whatever adventure unfolded.
The final days before the race were a whirlwind of packing, movement and pizza dinners. At bib pick-up the photographer remembered me from the Gran Trail Courmayeur 100k in July and I joked with the volunteers who collected my yellow TOR duffle bag as I “mastered” my race number in Italian – seicento-cinquantaquattro (654). All of the buzz lifted me up and reminded me that I had a deep love, respect, and years of experience in big mountains to draw on. Now it was time to celebrate, to launch myself into the mountains for a supported journey that was sure to be filled with extreme challenges, beauty, reflection, learning and growth. This was the fun part, and I was determined to have a blast!
I’ve never in my life bounced so quickly to and from pure ecstatic euphoria to the depths of pain and darkness as I would in the week to come – but most of the time I was at peace with the whole spectrum of contrasting experiences. My body was in shock those first days of the race (couch-to-TOR is not a training strategy that I’d recommend!) but there was a little inner voice of wisdom that coached me to take it slow and aim to maximize my time on the course. I took this advice, settled into a turtle’s pace (with far more “speed-hiking” than actual running), and I found my people in the back of the pack.
“Adopt the pace of nature; her secret is patience.”Ralph Waldo Emerson
The first 100 kilometers of the course includes some massive climbing to cross six major mountain passes or cols (my uncle referred to this terrain as “washboarding”). I was about 30-hours into the race with only a scant 30-minute snooze and I had lost track of which col I was climbing. All I knew is that every step was starting to feel hard. This was the only climb throughout the entire week that I stopped often to catch my breath. Then just as the sun was dipping below the horizon, I reached the summit and was surprised to see the signpost for Col Loson. Col Loson was the final climb in this section and marked the highest point of the TOR course at 3,300 meters. I was elated that I had unknowingly completed one of the hardest climbs, and I paused to take in the soft alpenglow colors as they cast their hues on all of the surrounding peaks and valleys.
“But to all those who work come moments of beauty unseen by the rest of the world.”A River Runs Through It
All of the effort was worth it for a single moment like this. We only get so many of these perfect moments in our lives, where time seems to stop and we are surrounded by indescribable beauty. I soaked it all in before gathering a group of volunteers near the summit to film a Compleanno Felice clip for my son Sage’s twelfth birthday and starting the descent to Cogne.
After a leisurely (er, inefficient – I’ve never done this before, remember?!) stop at the life base in Cogne, I began the rare gradual climb to the next col, Fenêtre de Champorcher. I settled into a steady fast hike as I moved up the gently inclining dirt road. My stomach had been feeling slightly off for some time but just as the sun cast its first rays of light around me, I was forced to duck into nearby bushes to empty my bowels a half dozen times. I was left feeling tired, weak, and extremely light-headed. I willed my body to the nearby rifugio and crawled into a bed. Official race policy was that sleeping was not allowed in the rifugios this year due to COVID, but some shelters were still preparing space for our tired bodies (the challenge was that we never knew which ones!). Thankfully I was permitted to crawl into a bed that morning for a blissful 45 minute snooze before filling my still-queasy belly with custom ordered polenta con burro and homemade focaccia.
This unexpected delay meant that I was now truly in the rear of the race and I found myself yo-yo’ing with a few folks who were starting to panic about cut-off times. I made quick time at the next aid station (and opted out of what was apparently the best pasta on the course) to situate myself ahead of the frenetic energy. I was here to celebrate and play, and panic was not something that I wanted to let in, not yet at least. Even so, I had to work hard not to let the voices of doubt and self-judgement wiggle into my mind. I was one of the last runners on the course and all of my friends were leagues ahead of me. I had my good first cry of the race as I considered what failure might look and feel like for me in this situation. Fortunately my rockstar crew goddesses Laura and Jennifer met me in Champocher and smothered me in enough love to quiet my inner demons, lift my spirits and propel me downhill toward Donnas.
The path to Donnas followed the winding Ayasse River downvalley in one seemingly long string of glorious swimming holes. Anyone who’s spent time in the backcountry with me knows that once I eye a perfect swimming hole it’s only a matter of time before I’m stripped down and plunging in. Of all of life’s simple pleasures, frigid swimming followed by basking in the sun is surely my favorite. Bypassing hundreds of perfect dunking spots took an incredible amount of self-control but I locked in step behind Alfredo (yes, I would share trail time with all the good Italian men like Luigi, Mario, Giovanni and Leonardo) and we picked our way down to the lowest elevation of the course at 330 meters. Forcing myself to continue moving through some pretty remarkable moments and landscapes when I naturally wanted to linger and savour a bit more was a challenge for me (and also a good reason not to give up on plain old hiking and backpacking).
TOR was my third trail race in Italy so I expected that I’d mostly be running in a field of men (less than 10% of this year’s TOR runners were women). At my past races I’d managed to pick up some essential race phrases to help me navigate through aid stations and make small talk. I hardly needed any introduction to “Bravo!” – but I did learn to distinguish “Bravo!” from “Brava!”, reserved to compliment only the women. It seems like a silly little distinction, but many supporters saved their most enthusiastic cheering for us female runners and showered us with “Bravas!” and “Complimenti!”. This individualized support was particularly welcome as I came into Donnas and started pounding on the famously photogenic (and simultaneously grating on the feet) stone Roman-built roads. One woman driver released her grip of the steering wheel to throw her arms in the air, honk her horn and holler some passionate “Bravas!”. Moments later, a group of school children in uniforms stopped everything to wave their arms and encourage me along the route. These small gestures of support from complete strangers in a foreign language were an incredible boost to my morale and kept me moving throughout the week.
Once in Donnas, I took time to consume the best hamburger of my life (hurrah, food was starting to taste good again!) and slept for a record 90 minutes. I would soon be embarking on the long, wild, crux section of the race that takes many racers 30+ hours to cover, largely without the support of any crew. Leaving town, our trail crossed Pont Saint Martin bridge (again, Roman built and hecka old) to connect to a network of ancient stone trails that link one mountain village to another. I could imagine people walking these trails to exchange goods and ideas for thousands of years as I followed in their footsteps up out of the deep Aosta valley and back toward the high peaks and thin air. I spent much of that third night alone in beautifully deep reflection but I also occasionally teamed up with other runners to share stories, snacks and inspiration.
For me TOR always fell more into the “personal vision quest” category than the “trail racing” one. I spent six months training for this week-long adventure, but I knew that the miles and vert that I meticulously logged on Strava were only part of the bigger picture. I come to the mountains to bring my web of self and re-tangle it with that of earth and spirit. It feels a bit like renewing the connection with a lifelong friend – the relationship is ever present, but it builds and changes the more experiences we share together. For me, it is about going out and marveling at the clouds and creatures that live there while feeling the elements flow around and through me. I come to take it all in – just as it is – without any expectations of how I might receive it or how it might change me. And this fall I had to trust that my mental strength, love of wild places and connection to spirit would serve me just as much as my physical preparations out there on the TOR course. This was the essence of thoughts swirling through my mind on this third night.
“Mountains are not stadiums where I satisfy my ambition to achieve,Anatoli Boukreev
they are cathedrals where I practice my religion”
The weeks of training in the Chamonix and Trient valleys (plus Dwight steps in Berkeley!) had made me a solid and quick climber, so my emotional and spiritual highs tended to come when I was heading uphill towards the ridges, cols and peaks. It follows that my lows tended to come when I descended into the valleys and villages, which also happened to be where the major life bases and my crew were stationed. The topography of the eastern segment between Donnas and Gressoney was the most remote and technical of the loop, and we stayed relatively high as we turned the corner onto the Alta Via 1. My body was feeling strong now that I was able to consume calories again and my spirit was shining bright. At one point, I was so in awe of the surrounding night beauty that I attempted to lure Laura and Jennifer from their van to lie out in a field with me and watch the stars and eat gummy bears. Fortunately they remembered that this was still a race with cut-off times and overrode my deliriously fun ideas.
Roughly halfway through this tough section I arrived at Rifugio Balma, where I found a hidden hammock chair in a corner with a stunning view and watched a storm blow through while eating endless bowls of soup and pasta. Feeling the imminent arrival of a heavy food coma, I tucked into a dorm-style bed and asked the guardian to wake me in an hour. Everything at this rifugio had been lovely up until this point, so I was shocked when the guardian ran into the room a mere half hour later to shake me awake and tell me that I needed to leave now in order to arrive in Gressoney in time. There were still plenty of runners just arriving at the rifugio so I was confused about all the panic that seemed mostly directed at me. Too tired to question anything, I threw my muddy shoes onto my increasingly blistered feet and headed back out.
Leaving the rifugio, the course traveled through some steep talus fields that reminded me of familiar off-trail terrain in the High Sierra, and I refueled at a truly epic alpage aid station serving up barbeque ribs, fresh cheese with herbs and plenty of local beer. I had calmed my panicked nerves after the rushed rifugio departure and was eager to arrive in Niel for some crew love and footcare. When I arrived, I casually removed all my rain gear and waited for my ladies to find me. It took a few minutes for me to realize that I wasn’t where I thought I was – there was clearly no access road to this remote aid station and other runners were moving through quickly without assistance. I was still several hours from Niel. Meanwhile the aid station volunteers were busily breaking down their tents and abandoning their set-up. I silently accepted my error and plodded ever-so-reluctantly down the trail towards the true Niel.
The descent to Niel was a challenge for me. My feet were hurting terribly but also there were signs of struggle all around me. I crossed paths with two medics heading up the trail to support an injured runner and I passed a woman who through her tears shared that she would DNF at the next stop. I had stayed behind and supported her on the final flights of stone steps climbing up to Sassas the previous night and she had continued to struggle since then. I understood the discipline and sacrifice involved for each of us to be here and it was hard to watch people’s dreams end early, unfulfilled. Perhaps this was because I knew that the outcome of my own race was perilously hanging on by a thread.
I voice messaged my crew and articulated exactly what I would need at Niel to help dig me out of this hole. I wanted warm food followed by a 15 minute meditative rest with no talking or distraction. Also chapstick and fresh bandages on my feet. I had the best crew ever, and I knew that they would have everything ready for me. However, instead of the peace and serenity that I had imagined, I rolled into a multi-generational Italian party around a firepit with music, laughter and dancing. Laura, Jennifer and Jan lovingly covered me in the jackets off their backs, encouraged me to eat something warm and told me that I couldn’t stay here. If I was going to make it to Gressoney-Saint-Jean in time, I would have to hustle over this next 1000 meter climb. The simple and stern words of my new friend (and honorary crew) Jean-Marc helped me digest this news and launch back into the night: “Tu donnes tous, Maureen. Tu donnes tous à Gressoney!” (Give it everything, give it your all!)
And here is where I found myself charging up the climb to the col in the dark fog with the mist flowing straight into my headlight. I began my game of searching for trail markers, wading through herds of cows, and meeting ancient traders leading donkeys hauling cured meats. After exchanging “ciaos” with the man and the donkey, I continued downhill and arrived in Gressoney with less than an hour to spare before the cut-off time. Fortunately there was a two hour gap between the entrance cut-off time at a life base and the time that we had to check-out. I had less than three hours to eat, drink, shower, sleep, eat again, dress, and launch. This being the fifth life base, I used my time efficiently and left the aid station with 14 minutes to spare.
There were many more ups and downs between Gressoney and Valtournenche and my race contre la montre continued. I left Valtournenche alone, just before sunset, and was warned that this would be another long night. I like moving through the night as a solo being wandering through the mountains. The air is light, crisp and moist without the relentless penetration of sunbeams, and the runner’s world becomes small and limited to the ever-shifting sphere of brightness illuminated by one’s headlight. As I climbed, I noticed the small things within my lit orb – the glow-in-the-dark stripes on the legs of the skinny spiders, the dance between movement, light and shadow, the moisture collecting on the blades of grass. It’s a beautiful thing to spend the night alone in the wild. But this was my fifth such night in a row and I was feeling particularly alone and sleepy.
After hours of solitary roaming and a failed attempt to connect with Mat on the phone to keep me company, I spotted two lights ahead. Even just remembering that there were other people out there participating in the same wild adventure gave me a boost of energy. I hustled to catch their lights and attached myself to the rear of their climbing train, letting their rhythm and energy pull me up the mountain. At the col, the lead man said something and I immediately recognized his voice. It was Giorgio, the Italian that I had pulled up several climbs out of Donnas. We celebrated our reunion and carried on towards Rifugio Magia with fuller hearts and visions of a warm place to rest our weary bodies. At the rifugio, I ate the standard fare of sopa con formaggio with a cup of the and somehow talked my way into a dark room for a blissful 30 minute slumber.
After my “night’s rest”, I stumbled back downstairs into a dining room packed full with runners in various states of slumber, frustration and exhaustion. None of them were allowed to sleep in the many empty beds upstairs, another example of the inconsistency with the sleeping situation at this year’s COVID affected race. Collectively we looked like a tribe of zombies, and it was clear that many runners were in deep dialogue with their dragons. Legend has it that the runners start in an anticlockwise direction from Courmayeur while a herd of dragons start in a clockwise loop. We would each encounter our dragon somewhere along the way and have to decide how to navigate the experience. Reluctant to get sucked into the world of the dragons just yet, I chugged down another bowl of sopa and inched my way out the front door, back into the night.
Giorgio and I shared paths again as we moved through the coldest part of the night. We plodded along together until the faint outlines of the surrounding peaks began to emerge. Someone I met compared watching the sunrise to witnessing a photo being developed. Light slowly weaves itself into the darkness to unlock color and unveil a clear image of what was always there. Ahead I could see the outline of Bivouac Roserie-Clermont at 2,700 meters and as I took the final steps toward the crusty-eyed volunteers at the aid station Devin’s mantra came back to me:
I am PEACEFUL. I am PRESENT. I am PATIENT. I am POSITIVE. I am PERSISTENT.
Normally I repeat this mantra as a way of drawing myself closer to these ideals. This time it was different – it was as if I was embodying the mantra’s intentions already, and the act of repeating these words was simply voicing this awareness and actualization. In that moment, and possibly for the first time ever in my life, I felt perfectly at peace. The world continued to swirl around me and present challenges, and yet I felt like a beam of light, radiating positivity and joy as I moved through space and time. Patience allowed my shin to fully heal and it guided me toward a sustainable rhythm and pace this week. And presence is everything in this world of ultra-running. I had been practicing presence throughout this journey – embracing the entirety of each experience as it arose, overriding the instinct to flee, resist or crave. And I was persistent – no one could argue against that. I was living this mantra and I felt it deep in my bones.
I said goodbye to Giorgio here – he was chasing his cut-offs and I couldn’t tear myself away from the glorious sunrise and all of my emotions. I parked myself outside of the rifugio and felt the deep presence of Lucas’s spirit. He was there in that moment, shining through the sunrise, a witness to my journey thus far, connected to my embodied mantra. And I cried – tears of grief for the loss of a friend, tears of wonder that we can live in such a beautiful world, tears of exhaustion and peace. I’m not sure how long I spent on those old stone steps watching the world come alive but I’ll never forget the beauty and intensity of that moment.
I finally made the push up to the nearby Col Vessona and found myself surrounded by a lively crew of familiar faces that were also absorbing the sunrise. We all froze to take it in. I popped out the bag of Caramel M&M’s that Lucas’s mom Jan had given me and passed them out with a casual mention that these were in honor of the late two-time TOR finisher Lucas Horan who fueled many adventures on M&Ms alone. Wild-haired Bill from Santa Cruz turned and said “Tell me one story about Lucas”. And it dawned on me – we all were doing exactly what Lucas loved most in life. We were standing together – a disheveled band of wild and dirty beings – at the top of a mountain col watching the first rays of sunlight touch the valley below. And we were about to descend. I told Bill and our tribe of M&M eaters about Lucas’ iconic style of flying down mountain passes. Lucas would offer his arms to the sky, his voice to the peaks and his legs to the process while just barely staying in control. The next thing I knew, I was flying off the col hollering out – and our crew from atop were all on my tail. Our voices rose together as we celebrated the return of light and gave thanks for all the beauty, friendship and pure exhilaration of this moment.
You can’t plan for moments like these, yet unknowingly this was exactly how I wanted to say goodbye to Lucas. There’s no doubt in my mind that Lucas was there with us that morning. We all felt touched by his spirit. I now realize that this is the same descent where Mat and I felt Lucas’s energy earlier in the summer. Then too he propelled our legs down the steep climb off the mountain with just enough recklessness that there was no denying his hand in it all.
Suddenly my right knee had a sharp pain as I continued down the mountain towards Oyace. I momentarily wondered if that reckless descent had cost me my race. Perhaps, but I can wholeheartedly say that I would do it all over again. Finishing TOR was always a goal, but it wasn’t the only one. This was where my first thoughts of DNF’ing crept in. I had just experienced one of the most magical sunrises of my life and I was brimming with all of the emotions and sensations. I staggered down the mountain, a messy puddle of tears, sweat and dirt.
A man approached from the opposite direction and silently offered me a piece of wrapped candy. I accepted but was too frazzled to open the wrapper. He wordlessly took the candy back, opened it, and placed it directly into my mouth. We exchanged the universal trail words of brava, grazie and ciao and continued on. There were so many moments like this on the trail and I’ll never remember them all, but I’ll always recall the feeling of respect and support that was given and received on this journey.
My resolve to end my race at Oyace was perhaps softened by the sweetness of the gifted candy, but it was the pep talk and love from Jennifer that convinced me to push through this low point and lace up my shoes again. From here until the end, we settled into a predictable pattern. I would launch into the hills and climb up to ever mounting physical and spiritual highs, but everything would come unhinged by the end of the subsequent descent. My two superhero crew members would patch me up, brighten my spirits, and force calories into my body before pushing me out into the mountains again, and again, and again.
“May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view.”Edward Abbey
I was on the verge of making it to Ollomont, the seventh and last life base, when the earlier sharp pain in my knee shifted and was replaced with dagger-like sensations in both quadriceps. My body had been gradually swelling throughout the week and my legs were now so puffy that I could no longer bend my knees. I explored different gaits to minimize the pain and finally settled into a relatively comfortable and highly awkward backwards descent. Laura joined me for the final kilometer into town and we giggled at the absurdity of my situation and gave the surrounding spectators a good laugh as well. At the life base, I did the reasonable thing and consulted with the medical team. They weren’t concerned about the deteriorating state of my body (clearly they had seen far worse!), so I had the volunteer PTs work their K-Tape magic and I headed out for one more night.
I was in the final stretch of the race, with only a few “little” bumps left before the finish line in Courmayeur. I knew that this was my last night playing in these mountains and in a few short days I would be back home in Berkeley. At Col Champillon, I was overcome with a profound feeling of gratitude. I paused to give thanks and bid farewell to these mountains that had protected, healed and inspired my family all summer. And in that moment, I was again flooded with that deja-vu feeling – I had been here and done this before. I accepted the strangeness of this increasingly familiar feeling before plunging into the unknown descent ahead.
As I had feared, I had barely crested over the ridge when my legs completely seized up. I would need to find a way off this mountain – ideally without getting hurt or being evacuated in a helicopter. I found a rhythm of moving slowly downhill until I lost all control of my legs and then I would lay down on the trail and sleep. I was wearing every item of spare clothing from my pack and also had one of my emergency blankets (required gear for every runner) layered beneath my rain jacket for added insulation. My second emergency blanket served as a ground cloth and blanket during the trail naps. I made my way down the mountain like this until I reached a section of trail that felt too exposed to safely cross alone. I knew that the scupa (sweepers) would soon catch me so I laid down on the trail knowing that they would soon awaken me.
“There was nowhere to go but everywhere, so just keep on rolling under the stars.”Jack Kerouac
I still had plenty of hours until the next cut-off, so when the scupa reached me they laid out my options – I could continue to sleep or I could move down the trail. Either way, they would remain behind me. I opted to continue along the exposed trail with the added security that they brought, and we silently and slowly inched our way off the mountain. I should note that my beloved crew were awake this entire night (after many other sleepless nights) monitoring my progress and on-call to order an evacuation if needed. As we descended ever-so-slowly we also swept up other stray runners along the way, each locked in combat with their own dragons. My dragons were largely physical, but it was clear that most of the other runners at this point were fighting against mental and emotional obstacles.
From the moment that I met the scupa, I’d been honest about my plan (in my French-Italian mashup). I would descend to the next aid station where I would sleep before deciding if (and how) I might make the push to Courmayeur. However, just as we reached the dirt road that connected to the aid station, the scupa insisted that I either continue the descent immediately to Saint-Remy-en-Bosse or I end my race here. I hardly had a chance to consider these options when a friendly volunteer opened the door to a warm idling Jeep, and I climbed in.
It was only once I was rocking in my seat down the long and bumpy road to town that I “woke up” and questioned how I had gotten there. I had been too tired to question my choices, call my crew or advocate for myself at that moment. I regret that moment of distraction, but the truth remains that my body had been revolting for some time. I was clear from the beginning of this journey that my health would always be more important than the finish line. And so after spending 137 hours in the mountains surrounding the Aosta Valley and covering 330 kilometers and 24,000 meters of vertical climbing, my race was over. I was less than 20 miles from the finish.
There are moments where I question how I could DNF so close to the finish. In trail racing the finish line is akin to the summit for a mountaineer – and every alpinist will sometimes have to make the choice to abandon an expedition just shy of their ultimate goal. We make tough choices like these because we want to make it off the mountain and home to our families. We do it because we want to ensure a lifetime of returning to our mountain cathedrals to fill our souls. We do it because connecting to wild places gives us the strength to move through everyday life with more clarity, generosity and connection. We do it because we know in the deepest of places that the journey is far more important than the destination.
With a few weeks between me and TOR, I continue to be filled with gratitude for the full spectrum of the experience that I had over the course of those six days. I was alive and present for all of the peaks and valleys that came with taking on such a monumental challenge, and it was immensely healing to feel the connection to Lucas’s spirit with new friends. Throughout the whole adventure I felt abundantly held and supported by my crew that was with me in the Aosta Valley, but also from the much wider community of friends, family and strangers that followed my journey. And to answer the most pressing question on everyone’s mind… yes, I would do it again. Without a doubt, if given the chance, it would be an honor to return to the Aosta Valley and give TOR another shot. These mountains have so much more teaching to do.
The true miracle is not walking on water or walking in air, but simply walking on this earth.”Thich Nhat Hanh