Thursday, April 5, 2012

One Giant ultra… Home stretch (Part 6)

Angelia getting ready for a cold night
Section 6

Erin joined us for a little bit and we climbed the endless stairs out of the lower valley. Eventually I told Erin to turn around. Trails are addictive, but she had no lights and going back down the stairs in darkness would be a very bad idea, plus I needed her to take care of me. We climbed up more and were treated to amazing views as the sun set for the fifth night. Angelia has slept more than me and is a better hiker. I worked hard to keep up with her, but I knew this would help me make up more time. We made it to the first aid station and we were told to stay in groups of two or more as snow was forecast. We filled our bottles, I had some hot tea and we kept going. With the darkness and fatigue we got off course for a bit and had to backtrack. I forgot to add new batteries to my pack and had choice between batteries in my garmin or flashlight. I had to swap batteries back and forward when I needed to check the trail. My ankle was starting to hurt more. On what should have been an easy section we were moving slowly, trying to stay on course and awake. Eventually we got to a rifugio. They had beds and we decided a 30-minute sleep would help. An hour later someone woke us up. It was OK, we still had time. As we headed out an unhappy Frenchman shouted at Angelia. He had wanted to join us, but we were going too fast for him. We weren’t going that fast.

We left back out into the dark and cold, my ankle now really hurting. I felt maybe I could make it to the next life station then drop. I don’t believe in running through pain. I took three Advil just to allow me to keep moving and stay warm. I told Angelia to go ahead. We had maybe five minutes of snow but now the skies were clear and I needed some time alone to re-evaluate things. I had to move slowly to protect my ankle, but at least I was able to move at all. Every so often it would hurt when it landed the wrong way. To add to the fun we were now on the edge of what seemed to be a cliff and narrow trail that fell away into darkness. Someone starting calling “is this the right way?” I hadn’t seen a marker so stopped and did a garmin check. It was right so I kept going. However, the trail got worse. I eventually made it to the rifugio cunny. I was in a lot of pain. I didn’t know how much further I would be able to go. I knew it may be all over for me. Angelia was having knee issues, we both were tired and hurting, both wanted to stop. Close was 12km away, down in the next village. It sounded like a good place to quit. We decided since it was around only an hour or so from dawn we might as well sleep for a bit then do the last section once it was light. It was meant to be a steep downhill back into the valley. I didn’t know if my ankle could take it. We slept for a bit, maybe 30 minutes, then I asked one of the volunteers if they had a bandage for my ankle. A nice volunteer got a bandage and wrapped my ankle. It seemed to feel a little better. I was getting chilled. This was one of my fears. You get to a point of exhaustion when you can no longer generate heat without moving. I had to get moving again. Shivering, I added several hand warmers inside my jacket and headed out to the cold morning and started slowly running.

Steep drop down to the Valley

The sun eventually rose with my body temperature and to my surprise I was able to somewhat run without pain. The bandage really helped. Ok maybe it wasn’t all over. I tried to talk Anglea into continuing also. The section to Close was much better than we feared and we got there feeling OK. I thought OK, I could at least make it to Ollomont. I always try and go one more aid station just in case I feel better later. It was hard to leave. Erin and the shuttle was waiting for us at Close, giving us the easy option to get a ride to a warm bed and food other than bread and cheese that had been my staple for the last four or more days. A cute blond Italian girl said the next section was easier, just a 600-metre climb. I asked Erin to see if she could get me pizza for the next life station. We had done 2000-plus-metre climbs earlier so 600-metres, that wasn’t too bad. I should have known better. I turned on my garmen to see the elevation, OK, I could do 600m. I started to climb… 200 metres, 300 metres.. 500 metres - the peak seemed much higher up. I wasn’t happy. Maybe we wouldn’t go to the top this time. Now 700 metres of climbing and still going up.. at last, at 800 metres, we starting going down… then I saw it.. a trail straight up with a few runners looking like ants. At that moment I decided I was going to quit at Ollomont. I had been lied to. There was at least 600 metres more of climbing. I had to been told it would be easier but this was another massive climb. I pushed to the top then started the long decent. Something felt wrong. My little toe on my right food was growing. Somehow a massive blister had formed. It felt like my toe was twice its size.

This Peak was twice as much climbing as I expected

It seemed the bandage that helped my ankle changed the fit of my shoe causing a massive blister on my toe. It felt like it was about to explode. I didn’t know the state of the blister but knew it was going to be ugly. I had been wearing the same shoes and socks for five days and an open wound in dirty socks was not a good idea. I stopped and looked for my blister kit in my pack, but couldn’t find it. I tentatively ran down the hill, trying not to cause the blister to burst. I had heard about stories of excruciating pain when blisters burst. I didn’t have time for pain. I had cut-offs to make. I forgot for a moment I was planning to quit.

Eventually I made it to the next stop and looked again in my bag and found my blister kit. I asked if the volunteers minded if I fixed my feet - I didn’t want to gross anyone out. I carefully peeled back my sock and to my surprise the blister had burst painlessly. I cleaned it up and added some tape to protect it and got back on my way. An official volunteer joined me and the runner behind me dropped. I was last and being escorted to the next and final life station. Erin came running up the trail to greet me. I asked if she had pizza. All I wanted was pizza but she said she didn’t have any. I was devastated. Pizza was the only thing that was going to keep me from quitting. As I came in everyone cheered. A camera man, perhaps from a local TV station asked if I was going to continue. I couldn’t disappoint them so I said yes. Damn, now I was going to have to finish this thing, pizza or no pizza. I checked my phone and found lots of nice messages including one from my brother and mum telling me to keep going. I had set up a “where-is Craig site” with a text messaging app so friends could see where I was and send me text messages to the phone I was running with. It had been a great boost during my low times and made me feel like I wasn’t doing this alone or just for myself. Friends seemed inspired by my efforts. I was going to finish this not for myself, but for everyone who had supported me with kind messages and everyone who felt inspired by me. I was going to finish this for my friends and family.

I had about 90 minutes at Ollomont before the final cut-off. Angela was there also and we both decided to continue. We had to be out my 7pm, we left with about five minutes to go. I got my ankle taped by the life station doctor, cleaned up my feet and got ready for the final 50km. I hoped it wouldn’t be too hard. I knew we had two major climbs. I thought if we could get the first climb done quickly we could make up more time and hopefully not be chasing cut-off until the end. I wanted to make up some time so I could get a few more hours sleep. I really wanted to sleep a little more.

I headed out with Angela to get this thing done. As usual we started climbing. Together we pushed up the hill. We were on a mission to get finished as soon as possible. We carefully studied this section before heading out. It looked like there was a good amount of flat stuff. If the trails were good we could be done sooner than expected, maybe even 12 hours. It started to look good. We had a good amount of fire roads to the first aid station. We took a little time to eat and refill our packs. As we were about to leave the course sweeps arrived. They were planning to sleep a few hours then head out after us and the last runners. We must have passed a few people on the way up. There was two still behind us who also were going to sleep and head out with the sweeps. We decided to continue. We headed out and realized it was really cold, went back in and changed into warmer gear and pants. A few minutes later we were out again climbing. Eventually we were on a nice runnable section. Please, please stay like this, I thought. I should have known better. The trail progressively got worse as we winded down into a canyon. The trail was not steep, but it was rocky and each rock hurt my blistered feet and threatened my ankle. I couldn’t even run on this almost-flat trail. It was so frustrating and I was getting more and more tired. We should have slept at the last aid station. Let’s just make it to the next one.

It took hours and hours. The trail just kept going, winding down and eventually we made it to a very basic aid station. Angela asked about sleeping and they showed us what they had. In the back, in what looked like a workshop that smelled like toxic chemicals, there was a room that smelt like dead animals with a gross stained mattress. We weren’t that tired. Maybe we were, but I didn’t think it was a place to sleep. I looked like something out a horror movie. We headed out. Maybe the next one would be better.

The trail was a little better, actually very runnable, but we were so both tired we just plodded along. More hours passed. We were both out of it, seeing things that didn’t exist, talking to imaginary friends, in and out of waking dreams. We tried talking to each other to stay awake. We tried running faster. Things looked very familiar in a place we had never been. I was convinced we were running in circles, but Angela seemed a little more aware than me. We ran along a river bank, past a cruise ship (that probably didn’t exist).

Please let the next aid station have somewhere to sleep. We got there eventually. It was just a tent with food, water. We asked about sleeping. The volunteers talked for a bit, looked at us pathetic half-asleep runners and showed us to a van. (I saw a van, Angela though it was an ambulance) In the back were some blankets and a clean mattress. To us it was as good as a five-star hotel. We got a good 15-30 minutes of sleep. My watch alarm went off after 15 minutes. It was the alarm I set for the day earlier. It was what we needed though. We got up, ate some more and headed on our way. It was going to be another tough section, but we were starting the final mountain of the race.

The sleep helped us but not for long. Soon we were tired and seeing things again, but it wasn’t as bad as before. General fatigue caught up with me and I struggled to keep up with Angela’s pace. We saw the next aid station, it was the other side of a ravine. I didn’t see any way across but maybe there would be a bridge. As we kept going I could see Angela’s lights moving further and further away. I thought maybe I could catch her, but my legs wouldn’t oblige. All I could do was keep moving. Following the ravine the aid station moved further away until it was out or site. Maybe that wasn’t it. After more climbing the course crossed above the ravine then started to wind back. I kept trying to go faster, but ended slowing down. I was losing energy. The trail in part was a muddy slop. My shoes became caked with heavy mud and eventually I ended in a maze of mud and rocks. Somehow I followed the scattered course flags, drawn to the lights of the aid station like an insect. More climbing, more mud, more rocks and eventually I was there. Angela and another runner were still there. I didn’t waste much time. I ate, refilled my pack and got moving before I got cold. The sun was almost up again and there was only one more mountain between us and the finish line.

I was so tired this looked like an Aid Station

The other runner was a professional mountain climber. He was only back with us because he was running and hiking only during the day and sleeping each night. We all headed out. My energy was still low and soon I was alone slowly climbing. Then my sleep deprivation came back with a vengeance. I was getting confused. I thought I saw another aid station, but it was just a rock. I came round a corner and started hiking up with someone just out on a hike. It was nice not to be alone and we seemed to be at the same pace. A few minutes later an old lady started hiking alongside me also. This was strange and I wondered where she came from. As I turned to the first hiker to mention I was hallucinating another hiker, he was gone. I realised neither were real. Damn I just told a hallucination about another hallucination. I felt I was losing it. I had two choices: either sleep or speed up. I was scared I would sleep for too long and miss the final cut-off so I speed up. I was going to give it everything until I made it to the top. Whenever I saw someone or something that may not be real I would blink a few times to see if it disappeared or not. Soon the trail became very technical and nothing wakes you up like fear of falling off a mountain.

Ropes and ladder for the final climb

The final climb was brutal. It got steeper and steeper. The trail became steep loose rocks, then finally steps attached to a rock face, followed by ropes to help scramble over the rocks. Below was a fall of hundreds of metres. A fall would have been pretty bad. As I made it to the final peak I saw a dog. I blinked and it remained and was joined by a hiker. They were real. He kindly took my picture. I said thanks and went on my way. I had maybe 10 more miles and my journey would be over. I hoped for no more surprises, but I assumed there would be.

Happy to have made the final climb

The decent was beautiful and of course seemed endless. I would be dropping more than 1000 metres. I ran the best I could. I sure a tortoise could have gone faster that it’s the best I had at that time. Eventually the trail became less steep and I was able to run a little faster. Maybe I would catch Angela. I kept going. It seemed to take hours, but eventually I came to Ref Bentoni. Only 12km to go now. I saw Angela leave as I arrived. I ate a little more, refilled, and was out a few minutes later. As I left it started raining. I got a good pace then got stuck behind some cows. I eventually made it around them and started running again. The trail had become wet and slippery. I slipped and almost fell a few times.

I saw a runner behind me. I tried to speed up more. At least I wasn’t last. I must have passed someone during the last section. Trying to keep up speed resulted in me slipping and landing in the mud on my butt. My shorts were caked in dark brown and somewhat stinky mud. I thought now great. I’m going to run through town and people will think I shit myself or something. A little bit later I came to the final aid station. I went to a restroom first and cleaned up my shorts, then got some coke, refilled and kept going. Only a few more kilometres left and this journey would be over. Again I was treated to more technical downhill with plenty of rocks. The other running caught and passed me being a better downhill runner or maybe being better rested than me.

Eventually I saw Courmayeur. I just had to get down the hill a little bit more. Before I knew it I was on the road into town. It was a little surreal. I started to run as hard as I could. I was passing regular people walking who congratulated me. I knew very soon I would be done. I had received a text message saying all my friends, new and old, were waiting for me to finish. I saw a familiar looking group as I arrived at the church… but the finish line wasn’t there. I was a little disappointed. Did they take down the finish line already? No. I was told to keep running, the finish line was just down the road. TDG had tricked me again. I didn’t care. A group of local kids in traditional costumes and with cow bells started running with me. Everyone was cheering as I entered the town square and saw the finish line. I was done. They scanned my chip but I didn’t know my final time. I knew it was Sunday and it was before 4pm and I knew finally I was finished. I had finished my toughest race. I had finished despite everything TDG had thrown at me. I had managed to work through all the problems and somehow finish strong. The organisers had me sign a poster, which all the finishers signed. Then I was interviewed and asked if I was going to come back the following year. I said I didn’t know. (Will I run TDG again, I still don’t know)

Erin and all my friends were there for me. They took me in to a room where I saw one drop bag. Was I last? I guessed I was. But after a few minutes another runner came in. OK I wasn’t last. We went to eat at a local creperie. I was really hungry and had an amazing crepe. We walked back to the finish area so I could find my drop bag. It turned out these were back at the check-in place where there were also showers and massage. I could use a massage and really really needed a shower.

148 hours and 38 minutes after I started, I had finished. That’s six days, four hours and 38 minutes. I had only slept about six hours in that time. Even though the race was 332km or 206 miles, I had made few wrong turns that had added between five and 10km. I would say I did 210miles - a nice round number.

My Finish Interview

Special Thanks to Megan Hogarth for editing.

1 comment:

Chris said...

Oh wow, Craig! I didn't realize that you were so tight up against the cut-offs all the time! That makes your accomplishment all the more impressive.

Sorry that I didn't get more pictures of you!

Good luck,