09 October 2013

Post-race report one month after Tor des Géants

It is now exactly a month since I ran Tor des Géants. The first three weeks after the race were though, with first a serious foot infection that barely responded to broad spectrum antibiotics Clinidamycin in tablet form and where I probably should have received intravenous antibiotics from the start as I was quite ill with high fever and an enormously swollen right leg. After the infection I got a serious cold, which was not improved by an overseas business trip to the US, and it was not until this weekend I felt myself again. Upper respiratory tract infections (URTI) are very common after an ultramarathon and in a classic study published by Nieman and colleagues already in 2003 of 45 runners in the 100 miles Western States Endurance Run one in four developed URTI in the two weeks following the race (Nieman et al. Immune and oxidative changes during and following the Western States Endurance Run. Int J Sports Med. 2003; 24: 541-547). Clearly a race like TDG messes up with the immune system and the immune suppression I experienced after the race probably made me also more susceptible to receive the foot infection. The knowledge about the role and response of the immune system during and after endurance activities is increasing and I will come back to this very interesting topic in later blogs. It took also almost a month before I returned to normal eating and sleeping habits - the first weeks I slept much more than normal and I was also contantly hungry despite eating much more than I normally do. 

Besides sporadic jogging I have not logged any serious miles and during these past weeks following the race and now when I have started to run my 4.5 miles (7.5 kilometers) to work and 4.5 miles home from work each day my legs feel quite stiff and sore. My knees and Achilles tendons/Ankles feels OK, however, and I think that I am now ready for the long fall and winter build up for next year’s challenges. I have still not suffered from what many runners of TDG call the “Tor sickness” – a deep post-race melancholia almost on the borderline to depression. It might be that I am relishing on the fantastic memories I have been blessed with – I am still thinking about the race almost every night going to bed and often dream about it. It feels almost surrealistic that I made it through and that it was such a great experience. I have been running since I was a little boy in kindergarten, even competing in track and field and cross-country running when I was young, and running has always been something positive and something I have felt to be almost “in my blood” as I grew up with it. However, as an adult I have had other priorities for many years and it was not until the beginning of last year I started to train seriously to gather points to take part of the lottery to UTMB, a lottery I am now very happy that I was not lucky in as it made me take part in the TDG lottery instead. I was clearly not well prepared when I completed Trail Verbier St Bernard last summer and I felt the effects of that 110 kilometer (70 miles) race for several weeks afterwards. This year I came to TDG much more prepared, having run an average of over 100 kilometers (60 miles) per week most of the summer, but still I am surprised that I could make it without completing a 100 miles race ever in my life before having read comments that TDG is “a monster that eats a bowl of Hardrocks for breakfast” on blogs by previous runners. 

I think the key to my finish of TDG was that I came really mentally prepared for the race, having it as this year’s main and only goal and dream. I found the exact right balance during the race between being focused on the finish line and completing the race and fulfilling my goal and the management of the pain and emotions I experienced at every moment along the way. If I had only focused on the finish line and my goal and to not DNF I would not have made it as this race requires so much of you for such a long time that you cannot suppress your suffering until after the finish line. You have to embrace it during the run. I also came reasonable well prepared physically as I had no problems at all with the climbs throughout the race and my legs felt strong almost the entire race, perhaps with some exception day 2 and 3 where I really slowed down, but during in particular day 2 I also suffered from altitude headache. The intense hill repeat training with poles I had spent the last few weeks before the race in the local ski slope clearly paid off during the ascents, but regretfully not during the descents. I should have spent much more time running downhill on really steep rocky slopes and across talus fields with stones of all sizes. During the race I think the key to success is to learn how to take care of all kinds of issues, but in particular dermatological problems like blisters and chaffing, and learn how you react to altitude and tiredness. I ran TDG without any crew and support and it would have been much easier if I have had someone to help me at the life bases, where support is allowed as in most European races where no pacers are permitted. At the end of a race lasting more than 100 hours you are not thinking clearly and to have some else tell me to sleep one hour longer would have been very good. On the other hand this was my first try and I have, hopefully, learned a lot now.

I certainly learned and experienced a lot during TDG and I think it normally would have taken many shorter ultras to get the same amount of experience. After the race I have read the book “Eat and Run – My unlikely journey to ultramarathon greatness” by Scott Jurek and it is fascinating to read his, albeit somewhat colorful, quite correct description in the beginning of the book about what you could experience during an ultrarace:

“I know that I’ve chosen a sport stuffed with long stretches of agony, that I belong to a small, eclectic community of men and women where status is calibrated precisely as a function of one’s ability to endure. Hallucinations and vomiting, to me and my fellow ultrarunners, are like grass stains to Little Leaguers.  Chafing, black toenails, and dehydration are just rites of passage for those of us who race 50 and 100 miles and more. A marathon is a peaceful prologue, a time to think and work out kinks. Ultrarunners often blister so badly they have to tear off toenails to relieve pressure. One ultrarunner had his surgically removed before the race just in case, so he wouldn’t need to bother later on. Cramps don’t merit attention. Unless nearby lightning makes the hair on your arms and head stand up and dance, it’s nothing but scenery. Altitude headaches are as common as sweat and inspire approximately the same degree of concern (the death by a brain aneurysm of one runner in a Colorado race notwithstanding). Aches are either ignored, embraced, or, for some, treated with ibuprofen, which can be risky. Combined with heavy sweating, too much ibuprofen can cause kidney failure, which usually results in ghostly pallor and, if you’re unlucky, an airlift by helicopter to the nearest hospital. As an ultrarunner buddy and physician once said, “Not all pain is significant.” Ultrarunners take off a sunrise and continue through sunset, moonrise and another sunrise, sunset and moonrise. Sometimes we stumble from exhaustion and double over with pain, while other times we effortlessly float over rocky trails and hammer up a 3’000-foot climb after accessing an unknown source of strength. We run with bruised bones and scraped skin. It’s a hard, simple calculus: Run until you can’t run anymore. Then run some more. Find a new source of energy and will. Then run even faster. Other sports take safety precautions, we have death-avoiding precautions baked into the enterprise. Most ultras are dotted with aid stations, where runners are tracked, sometimes weighed, and provided with snacks, shade and medical checkups. The majority of races also include pacers, who are allowed to accompany runners in later sections of the course (but only for advice and to keep them from getting lost, not for carrying food or water). Ultrarunners can – much of the time – bring support crew, men and women who provide food, water, updates on competitors, and reassurance that you can, in fact, continue when you are sure you will collapse. Nearly all ultras are run continuously, meaning that there is no point at which the clock stops and everyone gets to retire for a large plate of pasta and a well-deserved night’s sleep, like competitors in the Tour de France do. That’s part of the challenge and appeal of the event. You keep going in situations where most people stop. You keep running while other people rest”.

I am quite glad I had not read this description before running TDG as I was about to experience most of the things listed, with the exception of the vomiting and that the lightening the first day was not as close.     

I have been asked more than once the past month what advice I would give to someone wanting to run TDG and if I only select three it would be:

1)      Take care of your feet. Apply lots of Sportslick or similar product from the beginning. Learn how to quickly tape your feet and take care of blisters of all kinds. Use compression socks and change them often. If you are planning to switch shoes bring them in a size normally way to large as your feet will swell enormously.

2)      Bring a strong headlight, music and coffee in some form for the long dark and lonely nights.

3)   Prepare by running crazy steep rocky downhill trails and learn your feet to love uneven stones of all sizes.

02 October 2013

Tor des Géants race report Stage 7

Stage 7 Ollomont – Courmayeur 48 km 2880 D+ (16 hours 15 minutes)

Two epic Cols during the last stage of TDG
Upon arrival at the last life base in Ollomont I quickly grabbed my drop bag and asked for a bed. I was shown to a hugh white and, regretfully, not at all dark and very warm tent where there were plenty of beds. It was a relief just to take of my shoes and I quickly lay down, but the warmth and the light in the tent made it difficult to fall asleep despite my tiredness and I guess it took half an hour before I finally fell into a disturbed sleep. I woke after only half an hour shivering, there was a nasty draft from below the bed despite the warmth in the tent, but felt anyway much better and decided to embark on the last stage.

During my rest I had received an SMS from Stefan Andreazzoli, the Swede who finished TDG last year saying “Go, go go !!! You are top 100”. I was surprised that I had moved forward so much in the field and the message woke up some of the competitive instincts I have, rather ridiculous now when I think about it as it of course had not mattered at all whether I had finished as the 98th or 108th runner, but at the time it felt important to remain among the top 100 and I tried to get myself ready to continue as quick as possible. I let the tape remain on my feet without changing it as it looked quite OK and just changed socks. I knew I needed more support for the feet this last part than the La Sportiva Helios shoes I had been wearing the whole race could provide. Regretfully, when I tried to switch to my Salomon XT S-Lab 5 shoes I noticed how much me feet had swelled during the race and that these shoes which normally, and even after short ultra runs, feels quite large were now without doubt were way too small. The Helios shoes I had been wearing must have adjusted gradually during the race and I had no other option than put them on again. The pain from my forefeet was now quite intense and I decided to take some Acetaminophen/Paracetamol tablets for the first time during the race. I used my last spare batteries for the headlights – the nights had been longer than planned so I had used more batteries than I thought and was lucky I still had enough. I ate a rather large meal consisting of pasta with tomato sauce, white bread, yoghurt, fruit salad and lots of Coke before setting out again at 4.20 pm in the afternoon after having been at the life base for 1 hour and 51 minutes. I noticed when I set out that I was still among the first 100 runners.
This is really what you see most of the time during TDG - your agonizing and painful feet
The last stage started with a quite relentlessly steep climb up to Rifugio Champillon. I felt surprisingly strong and noticed that the distance to two runners in front of me became shorter and shorter, in particular as they had to stop for quite some time when a large herd of cows came down the mountain. I am usually not afraid of cows, but when they are this many and moving this quickly I rather be out of my way and I took a detour to avoid them and still be able to continue to steadily climb. The climb was right in the direction of the sunset over the pass and it was almost difficult to spot the yellow TDG signs with the sun right in the face. Once the sun dropped below the mountain it however immediately became quite cold in the shadow and I had to put on my Marmot Essence Jacket before climbing the last part up to the Rifugio. I was surprisingly awake during this part and as the trail went through some really beautiful green pastures through easy terrain I felt truly happy. I also forgot the pain in my feet. Just before I arrived at the Rifugio I saw that there were a rather large group of runners leaving for the last climb up to Col Champillon. I anyway made a short stop to drink some more Coke, always surprised that you did not get tired of it, and to eat some more pasta.

The final ascent to Col Champillon at 2709 meters was steep but not particularly strenuous and I had developed a good rhythm when climbing using the poles in a very efficient way. I had throughout the race noticed that most runners seemed to also have Black Diamond Ultra Distance poles and they were really light and efficient. For most of the time I did not use them at all when descending and had both of them in one of my hands and tried to just run downhill. My pace down from Col Champillon was still very slow, however; throughout the race I had searched for the best way to run downhill but still not improved much. This descent was also very technical and quite long traversing alongside a mountainside deeper and deeper into a valley and it became dark towards the end of it just before I reached the stop Ponteille Desot. I was not surprised that I saw two headlights from runners closing in on me right before the stop. It turned out to be the American Arthur Morris and the Frenchman Vigneron Dominique, both of whom I had previously encountered throughout the race. I had some smoked meat, which appeared to be the specialty of this aid station, and again of course plenty of Coke.

At the aid station we discussed whether we would be able to eat breakfast in Courmayeur and Arthur said that he had promised his wife to meet her and do that so he would make an attempt. He also set of in a very high pace, quickly leaving me alone behind, running out from the aid station along a small fire road with a very small gradual descent towards St Rhemy en Bosses. I had started to feel real pain in my right foot again, but noticed that the pain became worse when I walked so I jogged along the long road through the dark forest. Again, I started to get déja vu experiences and felt increasingly tired. I was happy when Vigneron finally overtook me and somehow I managed to keep him within eyesight when running the last part down into St Rhemy on some winding real roads in and out of small villages. I reached the station at St Rhemy just before 11 pm in the evening and it was a relief to come into a warm tenth and get a cup of coffee and some cake. Vigneron decided to try to sleep for an hour, he subsequently finished the race two hours after myself on Friday morning, but I felt surprisingly awake and therefore decided to set out for the final climb up to Col Malatra.

I had barely left the station before I got a very strong déja vu experience. I have driven several times up to the Gran San Bernardo Pass in the valley of St Rhemy en Bosses, but of course never been running here. Still, I started to think that perhaps the La Boucle track of Trail Verbier St Bernard, which I ran last summer, passed by here, despite very well knowing that this was not the case. The déja vu experiences were extremely strong when I ran out from the village and up through some grass fields over the village. Then suddenly the tiredness came over me again. It was like falling asleep in the middle of a step and my mind simple shut down. I desperately tried to wake myself up by slapping, pinching and biting myself and by trying to elicit strong feelings, but to no avail. Luckily, the surroundings to the trail were not steep, but I anyway hurt myself in my left hand on a rock when I literally fell asleep and veered off the trail and fell down a short slope. I was very fortunate that my poles were intact. This scary experience woke me up for a while and I put up a higher pace again.

Continuing on I noticed that there were two headlights from runners on the track a couple of hundred meters below me that had crept up on me while I had drifted away. It was not long, however, before the tiredness overtook me again and I went into a state of almost dreaming. In the dream I became convinced that if the chasing runners overtook me before I reached the lights from the Rifugio above me in the distance I would lose and be taken off the trail and not allowed to complete the race. This was a nightmare with a scary feeling of being chased, but also a good dream as it made me put up an even higher pace up through the green cow pastures. It was really difficult to follow the tracks as the trail was winding and if you went straight for the next yellow sign you came out in the wet grass and also risked stepping in the numerous cow pats along the trail. Regretfully, I did that several times and for the first time during the race my feet got really wet and cold. At this point I did not care, however, and I managed to reach Refuge du Lac at 2537 meters without being overtaken by the runners behind me.

There were plenty of runners sitting and resting in the Rifugio when I arrived. I felt really weak and in hindsight I do not understand why I did not tried to get a short sleep, but instead I just became sitting passively on a chair drinking tea caldo and coke and eating cake and bread. When sitting there I noticed the American Arthur Morris who had taken a quick nap and were fixing his feet. I considered doing the same, but decided to not touch my shoes before the finish if not absolutely necessary. I also took care of the wound on my left hand which was merely a scratch, but still I had bled quite much. Strangely enough, sitting in the warmth in the Rifugio I was still very uncertain whether I would finish the race despite being this close to the end. Having rested for a while I noticed that several runners were leaving and I decided to follow their tail up the final climb of the race to Col Malatra and went out into the night again.

The first part of the final ascent up to Col Malatra was not particularly difficult and I very quickly my mind drifted away again. I tried to keep up a good pace and gained some on the runners in front of me. However, after a while the trail became steeper and steeper and also a little bit icy with some snow. It looked that someone had put on some sawdust to make the trail less slippery and despite feeling a good grip with my La Sportiva Helios shoes I slowed down more and more as it was so steep. I got to a rope section and tried to pull myself up, but as the rope was not completely stretched, but had got stuck on a rock when I grabbed it and I amost fell when the rope got free from the rock. I was now completely awake, but I went really slow and in the end I found myself just standing there not able to go further forward. To go backward was certainly no alternative, but to my relief I saw a headlight fast approaching when I looked down. It turned out to be Arthur who had made good progress up the climb. I waited a short while for him to reach me and then, after explaining my situation, followed closely in his footsteps when climbing the last part. It was a relief when reaching the top. I took a picture of Arthur, but my Iphone 5 with my camera had again shut down due to the cold which was really irritating. It was cold up there, someone had put a number of large Coke bottles and they had almost frozen and I could barely drink some. Nevertheless, it was not windy at all this night so before descending I switched of the headlight and stood there and watched the bright starry sky over me and the dark valley below. This was the last Col at Tor des Géants and as “Col Malatra” had been my mantra throughout the race it felt as I had made it. The few seconds I was standing there on top of Col Malatra under all stars will be an everlasting vivid memory from the race and one of these magical moments you train for all year when you put on your running shoes to go out in the rain and snow dark and cold fall and winter evenings.

The race was however certainly not over as I quickly realized when starting the arduous descent trailing Arthur towards Rifugio Bonatti. He must have taken it really slow as I could see his headlight in front of me for most of the descent towards the Rifugio. The trail was winding back and forth between dark summits and I had difficulties orienting myself and it felt like it took forever to reach the Rifugio. I was almost fully awake and my legs felt strong and even though my running speed was not high I was still running and the pain in my feet had almost completely disappeared. I reached Rifugio Bonatti at 5.28 am on Friday morning and was surprised that it had taken so long to get there. Arthur had also just arrived and was talking to his wife on the phone trying to get her to meet him at the last Rifugio before Courmayeur. I decided to quickly continue to the finish, perhaps I could have breakfast in Courmayeur after all, and took a quick cup of tea caldo with lots of sugar and some cookies before going out in the early morning.

It was 9.6 kilometers (6 miles) from Rifugio Bonatti to the next Rifugio Bertone. The trail followed the UTMB trail/Tour du Mont Blanc backwards and consisted of a long traverse along Val Ferret with stunning views in the morning’s first rays of sun of the Mont Blanc massif on your right on the other side of the valley. The trail was on a single-track path without many rocks and was definitively runnable. Setting out from the Bonatti hut I initially made good progress, but was anyway soon passed by Arthur who mentioned something like “The Frenchman is coming” and “I am going to race to be among the top 100” – clearly the race was on until the end. I tried to follow him, but without success as I again was overwhelmed by an immense tiredness. This time it was really scary as this clearly was not the place to fall asleep and veer of the trail due to the precipice on the right. The fall if taking the wrong step would lead to a fall to the bottom of the valley 1000 meters below. I had come so long so it would be no better to return to the Bonatti hut than to continue on to the Bertoni hut and standing there on the cliff realizing that the only option was to continue was one of the most terrifying moments of my life. Here I realized what TDG really is about – it is a fight not primarily with the trail, or with your muscles, or even with your feet, it is a fight with your own mind. Slowly continuing on I fought the hardest I could to not fall asleep and drift away into a dream leaving me dead on the bottom of the valley. In the middle of this fight I was passed by the Frenchman who turned out to be Georges Galle, the mountainman who had passed me easily on the way up Col Loson the second day of the race. He looked completely rested when he passed me and pointed to the stunning views of Mont Blanc in the early morning sun saying “It is beautiful, isn’t it?” I simply nodded and thought that if I was going to die at least it would be in a beautiful place. Georges was quickly out of sight in front of me and I was alone again with my fight. I think everyone has to search and find their own motivation to keep on fighting in a situation like this – for me it was the thoughts about my loved ones that made me victorious in the end and bore me the final way to Rifugio Bertone. It had been the longest 6 miles of my life.

When I arrived at Rifugio Bertone I took a strong cup of coffee, it most be the most longed for cup ever, and was told it was less than an hour down to Courmayeur. Suddenly completely awake, it was like I had dreamt everything that had happened between the two Rifugios, I took off some clothes and went on with the final descent. I could see Courmayeur down in the valley and decided to try to run. And suddenly it was like everything fell into place and I found myself flowing rapidly downhill like a river – this was the feeling I had been searching for during all descents the whole race. The stones in the path, and there were indeed plenty of stones here as well as the descent was really rocky, technical and steep, were no longer obstacles and I could even use them as support for me feet gaining speed. I was almost sad when I after what felt like only a blink entered the town and left the technical trail for asphalt roads. I must have been really fast this final descent as Georges Galle, who was long before me at the last Rifugio, in the end finished only 7 minutes earlier than I did. There were regretfully not that many people out this early in the morning, but all whom I met were cheering and greeting me like a winner and soon I saw the red carpet and the finish line. I had made it.

I made it

Signing the TDG poster. Another epic moment

"Before and after picture" from the beginning and end of the race. This is what TDG does to you