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rabbbitELITEtrail athlete Kyle Curtin's 2021 Tor des Géants race recap

Tor des Géants Stats:

  • Distance: The race claims 350km (217.5 miles), but most gpx routes I saw put the route closer to 230km.

  • Elevation: A highpoint of 10,825 ft at Col Loson (mile 57), and a low at the lifebase in Donnas (mile 94) at 1,125 ft.

  • Elevation gain: The race website says 24k+ meters (79k ft), while the GPX route calculated just over 90k ft. Most post race files I saw were in between those two numbers. You won’t feel shortchanged in vert or miles.

  • Time: There's a loose 150 hour cut off. I finished in 86h 48m. Good enough for top spot for non-Europeans and 11th overall!

  • Sleep: None the first and fourth nights. Two naps the second night for a total of about an hour. Two more the third night for an hour and forty minutes. Total of just under three hours of sleep the entire time.

  • Food: Roughly 100 servings of Tailwind (totaling 10k+ kcal), 20ish shots of espresso, 40 gels (30 Spring speed nuts @ 250 kcal with 50mg of caffeine), bowls of pasta, soup, and pastries from the aid stations.

  • rabbit gear I found particularly crucial to my success: 

    • Deflector: I wore this the entire 86 hours, only layering base layers and rain gear when required.

    • Shredders shorts: The 360 degree waistband pockets were my storage for all my nutrition, phone and trekking poles. I ran TOR with only a 5L pack, and I think keeping some of this weight off my shoulders worked well. I’m super happy with how easily my Leki poles stowed in the loops in the rabbit shorts for running the downhills.

Race Recap:

After coving a particularly difficult section of trail through the second night, the Italian runner I commiserated with and I could finally see the town of Niel a few thousand feet below us, but we both knew the descent was going to be crazy. They all were. No fall zones below loose steep gravel trail or off-camber stony switchbacks were now routine at the top of every pass. This wasn’t just crazy, this was Tor des Géants. The mandatory gear list was the first sign back in February when I signed up for this epic race in the Italian Alps. Traction device for ice, two space blankets, headlamps, puffy jackets, and most of my gear closet would have to fit in my checked luggage across the Atlantic. But the part I couldn’t get my head around was the vert. The race website said 24k meters (79k feet), but pugging the GPX route into Caltopo put that number over 90,000 feet of gain for the 218 mile (350km) route. I live in Durango, Colorado just south of some of the toughest 100-mile races in the country like Hardrock and Ouray 100, but even my favorite steep trails rarely were able to simulate the gnar that was ahead. 

The TOR route was established as a backpacking route that follows the Alta Via 1&2 routes in a loop around Italy’s Aosta Valley and crosses sixteen major mountain passes and through a dozen or so small towns in the valleys below. The Courmayeur visitors center informed me it usually takes backpackers a month.  The major aid stations dubbed ‘life bases’ sectioned the race into seven segments of roughly 50km, any one of which would have a legitimate claim as “toughest 50k” in the US. Each of these sections touted between 7 and 16 thousand feet of gain! English was certainly a tertiary language here, but the phrase that was on repeat of nearly every runner I spoke with was “This is crazy!”

The TOR route embodies that Italian spirit of raging on espressos and cigarettes and the trails seem to have a disdain for safety that would never be accepted by American races, or our insurance. The first climb and descent of the race was difficult, but really just a honeymoon: just a straightforward 5k up and down on some smooth trail and even road. The second climb (another almost 5k footer) was adorned with safety ropes along the ridge, a memorial for the Chinese runner Yang Yuan who died in the 2013 race, and my friend Amy Sproston debilitated by a twisted ankle. By the third pass it was dark, and even with my powerful headlamp, I wasn’t able to see the bottom of the drop off below the switchbacks. It was as steep as trails get and over loose shale. Prior to the race, Doug Mayer introduced me to his coinage “run-mo” as a snow-free cousin to ski-mountaineering, and that resonated here as each switchback felt more similar to digging my edges in a jump-turn than anything I would call trail running. 

Three climbs in and not even a full day into this race with a 150-hour cutoff, the casualties were starting to pile up. The aid stations resembled MASH units with cots, bloody limbs, and 1000 yard stares. Prior to the start, TOR vets warned me about ‘the dragon’. Legend is that when the racers start heading CCW, the dragon heads out in the opposite direction, and you’ll meet him...  usually somewhere near Niel. I had been moving at a comfortable pace, putting down an amazing amount of calories (like over 400/hr), and actually felt fantastic. However, it seemed every runner I passed was in crisis, and my ego started to wonder ‘am I causing this?’ I decided yes, and embraced that destructive dragon spirit through the early hours of the first night and reached the next life base at Cogne (68 mi), where I was rewarded with a loose 20 Euro bill on the sidewalk!

Weather on the second day was the same as the first: warm and sunny, my favorite! However, even with the race going relatively well for me, it was taking its toll. After yet another 4k+ foot climb, a section of the course I was looking forward to was next: a 17 mile, 8k foot descent into Donnas (94 mi) where the trail drops to cross to the other side of the valley. Rather than the cruiser downhill I unwittingly envisioned, this section of trail highlighted the lesson I would need beaten into my quads ad nauseum: TOR is relentless. A smooth gravel road near the top transformed into undulating rocky singletrack filled with questionable bridges and a blip of a 1.5k foot climb I had overlooked in the elevation profile. This ‘downhill’ took hours longer than expected and I reached the low point in the race in the hot afternoon in my own low.

At the third life base I was wrecked and needed a serious reset. I took over an hour in the life base to eat, shower, and even get a massage! I swapped socks and my shoes from Lone Peaks to a pair of King MTs that I saved for serious mountain running only. The upcoming section for my second night warranted it: 35 miles with over 16k feet of gain that wandered through residential trails and then along a seemingly endless ridge.

The second night was difficult. I was tired but didn’t sleep well the first time I napped at a Ruffugio 4k feet up the initial 7k foot climb. In the dark, it was a mystery which was the trail was next, and the short ups and downs made it difficult to find a rhythm. When I reached R. della Barma just 17 miles from Donnas, it was now past 2am and I really slept for the first time: a refreshing 35 minutes! When I headed out, I linked up with an Italian who spoke a little English, and it felt nice to have a companion for the rest of the night. 

So there on the top of Col della Vechia at 7k feet overlooking Niel (120 mi), the recognized half-way point (timewise), we scrambled along as the sun began to rise and echoed to each other “This is crazy. I don’t know how people don’t die more often." Even though it wasn’t yet 9 am when we finally reached the aid station at the bottom, my Italian companion ordered a beer and was still recuperating when I was ready to head out to the next big climb. Right as I was leaving, Joe Grant rolled up. Just a week before I felt for Italy I met Joe for the first time on our home trails, and since then he was a generous source of TOR knowledge. We only live about a mile apart, but our first time running together was on a winding downhill through the first night.

On the third day I entered an unknown territory beyond 49 hours (Tahoe 200), but TOR returned to a familiar routine: giant climbs that took hours and descents that plummeted into the valleys on impossibly steep trails that cut through the cow pastures permeating the entire route. Up to Col Lasoney (7,565 ft). Down to Gressoney (4,252 ft). Up to Col Pinter(8,884 ft) where I was greeted by a trio of Ibex. Down through the ski resort to Champoluc (5,118 ft). Up to Col di Nana (8,864 ft) where the sun began to set again as I grabbed the safety ropes attached to the rock traveling across another high consequence scramble. Down another 4k feet with my headlamp to the second to last life base at Valtourneche (148 miles in and back down to 4,883 ft). I spent the whole day moving well and passing other racers to close in on the top ten.

A competitive and challenging race creates an atmosphere that is key to opening doors regularly closed on mundane training runs. The darkness that enveloped from leaving the town lights brought the much anticipated third night, the home of the dragon! I wish I could reliably recount this accurately, but looking back, it feels like trying to remember a dream. Now over 60 hours into the race, my thoughts wandered to dark places handicapped from less than 90 minutes of total sleep. The giant rocks littered along the climb above the tree line morphed into hobbit homes and later rotted out teeth from the giants who must be in the clouds. The twenty or so espresso shots and grams of caffeine I’d consumed up to that point helped, but the mind will start dreaming whether you’re sleeping or not. I certainly wasn’t controlling these hallucinations, but they did seem to have seeds from my thoughts earlier in the race. The course is certainly wild, but it’s not wilderness. There are no wolves, bears or swaths of undeveloped land in this part of Europe, but just after another technical steep series of switchbacks, a cartoon wolf-like creature lunged at me from the creek to my left. It was realistic enough to make me jump off the trail. I badly needed sleep. I was able to make it to the next Riffugio, but after two 20 minute naps, I briefly forgot where I was. Or what I was doing. I was sole patient at this aid station, so thankfully I was absorbing all of the aid station workers’ attention. Otherwise, I surely would have slept through that alarm. And leaving the front door, I would have been lost. I couldn’t even remember which way to go back to the trail. 

It wasn’t really raining. I was more just in the cold, wandering another series of undulations. Still in the dark and still hallucinating other headlamps, or buildings, or indifferent trolls. TOR vets advised using my phone’s camera to double check what was real, so when I saw a glowing orb at Col Vessonaz (8921 ft) I checked: real! In the bedroom sized Riffugio were three loud and welcoming Italians ready to serve me pasta and tea. I didn’t mean to fall asleep, but an hour later, one of the men shook my shoulder and spoke the only English I heard that night, “Are you okay?” I was. I needed to wake up, but I made it through the third night. I wasn’t moving fast anymore down the start of the 4240 foot descent into Oyace (mile 173), so it wasn’t surprising when a Romanian runner caught up to me. I think Cornel was just trying to be encouraging when he said, “Come with me”, but with his accent my mind added Terminator’s “...if you want to live”. Whatever it was, it rejuvenated me and together we bombed down into the town at a reckless pace to start day four. This descent together was a turnaround point and one of the highlights of the race for me.

The wear and tear from TOR brought problems I’ve never seen in my past adventures. My nose started to bleed on the third night and didn’t stop for about 24 hours. My mouth became so raw and painful that I hardly ate for the last ten hours. The amount of focus the technical trail demanded made my eyes hurt from not blinking often enough, or not sleeping. But the daylight of the fourth sunrise was rejuvenating. TOR was done with nonsense for a bit. Back to big climbs. Up and down 3300 feet over 8 miles to the last life base aid station at Ollomont. It seemed like the trail was easing up. Not to say it was easy, but the trail lost a bit of the feeling like it was out to hurt you. The ascent was still steep at roughly 1200ft/mile but the trail was wider, less technical, and the thunderstorm hanging out at the top blew away soon after I climbed above the tree line. Another beautiful view at the top and steep singletrack on the back side. More TOR.

Then came the one truly easy section of the course: a 6 mile descent down a smooth jeep road. It seemed every other descent of the route was interjected with uphills, or mined with technical sections that forced me to a walk. It’s tough to tell a future racer to save your legs for mile 190, but it would be good advice. Over 300km into TOR, the end was tangible. At the end of the upcoming 4800 ft climb ahead was Col Malatra (9,400 ft), the last major mountain pass in the way from finishing. When I arrived at R Frassati just 1300 vertical feet below, the sun was gone again, replaced again by low clouds that diffused the light from my headlamp into a blinding haze. For the last 20 miles I was running on and off with a Frenchmen from Nice racing Tot Dret (the 130km sister race). Now into the fourth night, I was thankful for his company when Christopher asked if I wanted to ‘go together’ for this last climb. I took the lead hiking up through the mist as the muddy trail marked by yellow flags turned to wet rock and gradually got steeper. Just a hundred feet from the summit, the ropes anchored to the rock paralleling the trail appeared and the trail went vertical. Using class III & IV moves we scrambled up the last pitch, aided by the illumination from the cameraman at the col summit. This might have felt within my wheelhouse in ordinary circumstances, but in the dark with wet rock and over 80 hours on my feet, I was relieved to have made it up this last no-fall zone without incident.

It was mostly downhill to the finish from here, but TOR had another wrench to throw in the mix. Cow paths braided the course into multiple paths, and hungry marmots turned many of the reflective yellow flags into, well, nothing. I returned to a technique I began earlier in the day where each time I would see the chewed remnants of a flag I would start counting the time until I saw the next. This worked well enough to guide me to a section of trail I was familiar with: the TMB trail!

In 2019 when I ran UTMB, the most difficult section of trail for me was after the halfway point where the climb out of Courmayeur took the racers above the tree line and onto the trail I was on now. I need to reiterate, TOR is just outrageous. My personal bell curve of classifying technical trail shifted so far that this once difficult section of TMB now felt like a superhighway. The trail now seemed wide, speckled with waterbars to drain the puddles and was missing the ruts and rocks that seemed mandatory for the previous 215 miles. I was yelling with joy and running uphills with the enthusiasm that comes when the end is recognizably close. 

One last 2.5k foot descent into Courmayeur and I would be done with TOR, but TOR wasn’t done with me yet. In a shakeout run earlier in the week, the descent from R. Bertone to town took about 35 minutes, but with my feet and quads now in full revolt, it took 70 minute. My agility was suddenly gone and each step down sent a wave of pain (which I vowed to remember before ever signing up for a race of this magnitude again!) I think it would have been faster to walk down. But with the sability of a baby deer, I kept my streak of running (the majority of) every downhill of this race. 

Running the shaddowy streets of Courmayeur towards the finish, I wondered if the late night spectators knew what I had just gone through. How could they? Even as I write this, how could I possibly convey the magnitude of TOR through text? It was an 86 hour epic that whitteled me into someone different than the person who started. Crossing the TOR archway, the announcer proclaimed “Kyle Curtin from America. You are a Geant!”


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