Running a Tour du Mont Blanc for my 2019 summer holiday, it was obvious that the best running, best food, best coffee and best welcome on the circuit was to be found in Italy. I needed to come back and explore this valley! It took me 3 years to get back, but it was worth the wait!
On the Italian side of Month Blanc the Aosta Valley winds its way for 50 miles down to the flat lands. Either side of this, deep side valleys cut their way into the high ground on the Swiss and French borders, with peaks topping out at over 4000m. This makes for an area of 1200 km2 of mountainous terrain that is laced with trails. Unlike the popular Chamonix side of the hill, it isn’t all steep forested hills and inaccessible rocky terrain either (although there is plenty of this). The high valleys often open out into large areas of wild and remote terrain with many summits easily accessible.
Traversing this incredible terrain is a monster of a mountain race, the Tor de Geants. This 350km circuit of the valley clocks up 24,000 meters of up and down in a non-stop race. Having done a number of multi-day stage races in recent years, this continuous style of race very much appeals to me, and to do it in such cool terrain was the clincher. It firmly placed itself on my 'Must Do’ list. As with anything this big, I needed a plan. This would be the first time I had raced outside of the UK, so a lot about the race was going to be new, plus an entry isn’t guaranteed as there is a ballot system. A stepping stone was needed. Fortunately the organisers also put on a shorter event, the TotDret (no, I don’t know what this means!). At a mere 130km with 10,000m of climbing this would give me a chance to get to grips with the logistics of the event and, if successful, give me a guaranteed entry for 2023.
This would be the furthest single run I have ever done, but wouldn’t be huge stretch from the 24 hour rounds that I have done in recent years. The main difference being the extra 2000m of climbing over a Ramsey round. This is balanced though by the fact it is all on trails rather than rough Scottish hillsides and had a lot more support points. I didn’t really know what to expect, but I had a working expectation of a 30 hour day.
We arrived in Aosta 12 days before the event, really I should have started to taper and take it easy, but like a kid in a sweet shop I couldn’t help myself. 2 big days on the road bikes, 2 big hill runs and 4 easy runs only left 3 real rest days. After a busy summer of training and guiding, even this felt like a lot and I found myself on race day feeling unusually fresh, “these legs feel dangerous”!
The TotDret follows the last 3rd of the full Tor de Geants route (with 2 small variations) and is basically 6 big climbs, each equivalent to a lap of Ben Nevis. For reasons that I can’t fathom, the event starts at 9pm, meaning the first 9 hours would be in the dark. It also meant a full day of waiting around with those race day nerves, not really feeling like eating even though you know you should be. Once in Gressoney and registered it was time for a pizza, some final kit faff, an evening espresso and a warm up before taking my place at the start.
With a party atmosphere and enthusiastic announcements in Italian and English we finally got the countdown and we were off, 500 runners swarming through the village and on to the first climb. This was up a narrow hill path with little room for overtaking, so we were soon in sync, nose to tail up the climb.
I had decided for this event not to have any pace information on my watch. I have spent recent big events focussed on my watch, checking and moderating my pace to match a theoretical threshold. I suspect I have held myself back more than necessary. With no real goal other than finishing, this was a great opportunity to ditch the technology, go on feel and see what happened.
Immersed in the pack on this first climb, the pace felt just right, moving well without getting carried away. This had to mean that for a lot of the field, this was an unsustainable pace!
The first 500m of climbing passed much quicker than expected and we arrived at the first mountain refuge, normally quiet places of sanctuary, tonight it was transformed into a fusion of major sporting event and music festival with a tunnel of supporters unlike anything I’ve experienced in other events.
After this the terrain opened slightly and gaps started forming in the line. Without rushing I slowly started to overtake people and work my way up the field. Towards the top of the climb I could see an endless line of torch beams stretching away in both directions, up towards the col and a long way down behind me towards the valley.
From the col we entered what must be a stunning valley, it was only a shame I could’t see it. My world was reduced to my torch beam, the spreading line of torches and the reflective tape on the next route marker. What followed was an hour of the most amazing downhill trail running, with mix of steeper sections and really runnable, flowing trail. Steadily overtaking all the way, I arrived at the first checkpoint at Champoluc in 51st position, I was happy with that.
From here is was basically an exact repeat, over another high col and down to Valtournenche. Nestled under Monte Cervino (the Matterhorn) it was again a shame to be passing through in the dark. Now in 31st place the numbers were going in the right direction. I was surprised to find myself running the uphills out of the village, but I was still feeling really good, so on I went.
Eventually daylight came and we finally got to see the amazing terrain we were running through. By now the field were well spread out and I’d often run 20 minutes on my own between seeing anyone. A long stretch above 2500m here was hard work, then the endless descent to the support point at Oyace revealed the first signs of complaint from my quads!
In this support point we had a drop bag, an opportunity for food and even a sleep if you wanted one. Runners are allowed assistants here, but as I was 2 hours ahead of schedule, I was on my own. I was therefore very grateful to accept the offer of some help from an American runner who was waiting on her friend arriving soon. She seemed genuine in her offer, so I took full advantage; requesting food and water and putting her to work re-filling my running vest. Thanks very much and off I ran. Only at the next checkpoint where I met Laura did I discover who my stand-in assistant had been; only the recent UTMB winner, Katie Schide! I was slightly embarrassed that I had’t heard of Katie, let alone recognised her. But also it is one of the things I love about this sport. Whatever our level we all stand on the same start line and run the same course as the elites, but also share the same values of appreciation for the places we run and collaboration in a shared effort, much more than competition.
In the longer events where sleep deprivation becomes intense, runners often describe hallucinations. I wasn’t expecting this after just one night, but I did start to wonder as the day moved on; amongst the calls of “bravo” and “In bocca al lupo” (Good luck, or literally “into the mouth of the wolf”) I stared noticing people shouting “die, die” as I ran past. By this point I was up into the top 15 and first Brit in a race dominated by local runners. Was I upsetting the local supporters somehow? Were they just fabrications of my subconscious, shouting at me that I had overdone it and my race was about end badly?! It was only after the race, with the help of a bit of google translate that I solved the mystery. “Dai” translates as “Come on!”
20 hours in I hit the foot of the final climb, 1400 meters up to the highest point of the race at the Col de Malatra at 2928m. After 40 mins of hard running, duelling with with a local runner, a combination of under fuelling and over racing finally caught up with me here. I left the check point with handfuls of food and a big cup of cola. Better to be moving slowly and fuelling, than sitting still in the checkpoint. Alessandro disappeared up the trail, it was gutting to see him go, as he was the only person who had overtaken me throughout the whole race so far.
As always the low point didn’t last forever and I gradually got back to a decent pace. A short stop at the Refugio Frassati to grab some food, put on another layer and get my head torch ready and I was off into the second night. The final section to the Malatra is steep and rocky, protected with rope handrails and marshalled by mountain guides. A cold wind was blowing through the gap. In 24 hours time this would bring snow and close the door to the final Tor finishers and cause cancellation of the 30km Malatra race.
By now I think I was in 12th place. Well ahead of my anticipated position, but tantalisingly close to the top 10. I had no way of knowing how those ahead were faring, so all I could do was run my own best race. Overtaking one other runner on a short climb, it was basically all down hill from here. With 127km on the watch I was starting to think about the end, the event is called TotDret130 after all. The next 90 minutes were therefore tortuous, a head torch behind me meant I was running flat out to drop them, descending a rough valley to meet the Tor du Mont Blanc balcony route, for 5km of undulating fast running before finally hitting the last checkpoint at the Refugio Bertone. Already over the distance I had expected to run, I knew there was one steep rough descent to go. This turned out to be the hardest running of the race, possibly because descending was fairly painful by now, but also the eroded steep stairs made any flow impossible. Down and down it went, 700 meters felt like 2000. With no sign of anyone to chase ahead and clear of anyone behind I slowed down to a plod, happy to cruise in to the finish. This was shattered when the head torch appeared again behind me, and moving fast! After 26 hours of racing, the fight for 11th place came down to a 400m sprint through Courmayeur. A fitting way to end the event, giving it my absolute best effort and running well.
I absolutely can’t recommend the Aosta Valley and the event highly enough. I have already booked to go back for 2023, Tor de Geants here we come!
Thanks to Moggans socks, Leki Trail Running, Inov-8 and Montane for support with kit.