Running Among the Giants
Nickademus Hollon 76hrs 29min's. 2nd place and first American ever on the podium at Tor des Geants 2014.
The mantra I repeated to myself again and again at the starting box of the race, was the same damned mantra I’d repeated to myself at countless other race starts “race your own race, race your own race, let them go out fast if they want, it doesn’t matter, 60hrs from now, you’ll look around and then you’ll know who means business."
The day before the race
Pre-race anxiety was starting to get to me, and I had to wall myself off from the excitement and hype of the race. Betta Gobbi, the co-owner of GRIVEL, ironically turned out to a Kundalini Yoga instructor and invited myself and my crew over for a session the day before the race. One of the first exercises we focused on was breathing through the nose.
“I want to teach you to breathe with your nostrils. Energize with the right nostril and relax with the left,” said Betta calmly.
We practiced for about two minutes breathing out of each nostril. I felt energy circulate throughout my body as I breathed through the right nostril and felt a steady calm take over my body when I switched to my left. I found the most power in the final exercise of the session
“I want you to hum the word “saat” and bring to yourself nothing but positive thoughts, positive energy,” said Betta, “and then we will end with an exhale on the word ‘nam’ during which I want to exhale all of your negative thoughts, all of your negative energy, your preoccupations and your fears.”
“Saaaattttttt” I hummed loudly, thinking of the months, the weeks, the hours I’d spent training for this race. “Naammm…” I exhaled, letting go of my self-pressure and forgetting about who else was at this race. “Saaatttt” I thought of how beautiful the course was and how much fun it was going to be. “Naaammmm” I breathed out last year’s mistakes, last year’s errors. I was a clean slate.“Il prossimo atleta è stato il primo al Nicaragua Fuego y Agua. 2 ° alla Ronda del Cims e ci si aspettano grandi cose da lui quest'anno ....” Ivan, the announcer of the Tor, smiled down at me and motioned for me to go around the back of the huge crowd. “NICKADEMUS HOLLON,” he called loudly and the crowd exploded in applause as California Love, by Snoop-Dog and Dr. Dre, played in the background. I worked my way slowly through the crowd, smiling and absorbing all the positive energy I could, along with a small kiss from my girlfriend Jade and a little dance as I walked up on stage. I loved the pre-race ceremony.
|Soaking up the positive energy at the pre-race ceremony.|
“So we’ll expect big things from you this year then, Nick?”
“I plan on giving this race my 100% and when I have to, my 200%. I’m leaving everything on the trail this year,” I said with a smile as they handed me my bib. #7, my position from last year.
Stepping down from the stage I took a quick glance around at the other athletes waiting to be announced. Oscar Perez Lopez, last year’s second place, Scott Jaime, fifth at Hardrock this year, Joe Grant, Nick Pedatella, Jason Poole, Lionel Trivel, Antoinne Guillame and Christophe Le Saux… it was going to be one hell of a race. I was stoked to finally be sharing the start line of this great race with a handful of phenomenally talented runners from the USA. I grabbed my jacket and started heading back towards the car for dinner. I looked down and read the name on my bib “NICHADEMUS HOLLON.” Hmm… “Nich” just didn’t quite have the same ring to it as “Nick.”
Stage 1: Courmayeur (0.0km) to Valgrisanche (48.0km)
“Fly you fools”-Gandalf LOTR
Il piu grande spectaculo doppo big-bang rang through the speakers as the sun began to peak out. Aside from the Pirates of the Caribbean theme, it was the Tor’s choice song. I smiled and looked out towards the crows lining the streets. I stood alongside Bruno Brunod, the living legend, a sky running extraordinaire. We joked to each other “don’t go out too fast this year!” Like we’d both done last year. He gripped his poles tightly. I checked down at my bib one last time and whispered to myself “race your own race” 3-2-1…
|The start of a long journey|
It seemed like only seconds had passed by before I was breathing heavy and half-way up the trail to the first pass, Col d’Arp. I fell in behind Joe Grant, Antoinne and Christophe, who, I was surprised to see, was pushing so hard this early on the race after placing 25th at UTMB last weekend. Scott Jaime was close behind me and we chatted a bit about the course. All of sudden Oscar Perez Lopez pushed forward and passed all of us in one fell swoop. His bright red HOKA backpack stuck out starkly in the dark green forest. None of this mattered though. “Race your own race,” I whispered again to myself, closing my eyes for a second and pretending that they’d all just disappeared.
As I pulled into the upper reaches of Col d’Arp Scott, Joe and several other runners had put about two minutes on me. I don’t know why I was calculating. I shouldn’t have cared. I didn’t, I swear. I was just observing. I heard the helicopter whiz by overhead and waved to it as it zoomed by. “Up ahead, that’s the top,” I pointed out to the Slovenian guy behind me. It seemed high, but that was then and I would worry about it then–here was now and I needed to be here. Digging my poles back into the earth, I fixed my gaze on the trail. “Efficient and effective,” I whispered under my breath again. This was only the first day of the race, the first climb and it was easily the most stressful of all.
I played leap frog with Antoinne, Christophe and the others as we all descended towards La Thuille together. I used my poles descending the gravel and asphalt road. Going conservative was the plan and damage control was the goal. I knew from last year that going too hard on these first few climbs could easily end a good race early.
Huge crowds of spectators banging against cow bells, yelling and cheering for us runners could be seen and heard from about a mile away, but no fanfare or competition would cloud my vision. I had to take care of my body. I had to refuel.
I walked right through the aid station, knowing that my personal crew, Augusto, Sean and Jade, were waiting for me just on the other side. Jade handed me a handful of pills a mix of amino acids and Vo2 max pills from Carbo Pro. Sean refilled my pack with GUs and bars. Meanwhile, Joe Grant, Scott Jaime, Antoinne and about six other runners blew past me as if they were on fire. Proof that the energy in La Thuille was indeed contagious. I took a few more minutes gathering my nutrition and slamming down 300 calories worth of Carbo Pro. Knowing from last year that it was a long climb to the next aid station at Rifugio Defeyyes and an even longer journey before the race would really even begin.
“Allez, Nick! Go, Nick!” I heard left and right as I caught up to Joe & Scott.
“Nick, damn man, I should run near you more often! All this fanfare you’re getting out here!” Scott said in earnest.
I just laughed, “Thanks, man”.
Scott pulled ahead as I hung back, starting to feel overheated, I listened to my breath and kept my heart rate under control, even if that meant losing a few positions. I slammed down some of my heavily concentrated 600 calorie Carbo Pro water. I crossed a small stream and scooped up some water onto my thighs and calves, cooling them off and hoping that I’d be able to avoid the heat cramps I usually suffered the first day of any race.
|Onwards and upwards|
It was odd how controlled and calm the climb felt as opposed to last year when I was coughing down dry parmesan cheese and salami and getting passed by dozens of runners. The first female was none other than Franscesca Canepa, who caught onto me right before the final switchbacks to Rifugio Defeyyes. I’d made a conservative, strategic climb and was on top of my nutrition. Canepa pulled on ahead of me at the top of the climb and I followed her closely into the Rifugio.
|Climbing up to Rifugio Defeyyes|
At Rifugio Defeyyes, I greeted my good friend Sandra who I’d come to know well from volunteering at UTMB. I filled up on water, slammed a bunch of oranges, remembering from some source that Vitamin C was a great anti-oxidant and that eating these could surely help clear up the free radicals that all the lactic acid in my muscles were producing. By the time I’d finished my own little personal health science lecture, Canepa had left the aid station for about a minute and Joe Grant was coming in. I double checked my gear one last time and got back on the trail.
I followed closely to Canepa for the next hour climb to the top of Passo Alto (2,920m). We spoke about twice about the idea of going “piano, piano” and smiled back and forth. After reaching the top of the climb I was in for a quick reminder about how technical this course could get. Yellow flags were scattered across angular car sized boulders, I pulled my poles up into my hands, stared at the clear blue sky, smiled and thought to myself, “At least it’s not pissing rain here like it was last year.” Positive thoughts were always good.
|Notoriously rocky and technical descent to Promoud.|
Further along the descent, I could hear a few runners gaining ground behind me but the terrain was too demanding to spare even a second to glance up. “Stop to pee, lose two positions!” Joe said jokingly as he and Antoinne passed me dancing over rocks on their way down towards Promoud. I trailed after them fixing my vision on Joe’s heels. Knowing that I was now running someone else’s pace, I asked myself “Is this sustainable?” The answer was yes.
The next climb, Col Crosatie was a man-eater. It was only 800m, relatively short compared to most other climbs in this race, but I knew from last year and I knew from training that if I you didn’t respect this climb, it would break you. My nemesis, my best friend, my least favorite and most favorite climb, Col Crosatie.
The approach to the climb stretched out over a few hundred meters and up ahead I could see Canepa, Jaime, Le Saux and the two others. Close behind me were Guillame and Grant looking strong and determined.
Half way up the climb I caught up to Scott who still had his hiking poles on his back, “Can I help you pull your poles out from your pack? If there has been any part of the race yet to use your poles, it’s now!” He nodded and agreed.
We chatted for all of two switchbacks before I fell into a sort of trance and started off on my own up the trail. Too long in any mode though can end badly, and it wasn’t before long that both Joe and Scott were now back on my heels.
“Food low, don’t worry about me,” I said feeling light-headed and queasy.
The two of them pulled about a minute ahead of me as the trail went onto a knife blade ridge and continued up a very mild via ferrata to the top of the Col–my favorite and least favorite part of the climb.
“Allez, Nick! Bravi, Nick! Forza, Nick!!!” Crowds up ahead cheered.
“Damnm dude, everyone here really knows you!” Scott yelled down to me.
“You’ve got to go eat at their restaurants, eat with them, enjoy their food, enjoy their company and they’ll take you in just the same!” I said back to him, smiling, waving and thanking the volunteers as I came up over the top of the pass.
They had bottles of coke at the top of the pass. I caved in early and had my first sip of the vile liquid. The quick bubbling sugars felt great.
“Scott, you want to nail this thing down to Planaval together?” I didn’t say it too clearly or too loudly. He moved his hand gesturing toward me but I’d already started off down the mountain, hoping to catch the tail end of Le Saux or Grant.
This next section was foreboding. During last year’s race a man by the name of Yang Yuan had fallen to his death while navigating this descent. I knew this year there would be a shrine erected in his memory right along the course. I flew around the corners, over the short climbs and technical boulders, until I finally caught a glimpse of the shrine. A large semi-rectangular pyramid made out of rocks with a large plaque on each side, similar to the figure the Italians use to mark the top of a Col. I took off my iPod, stored it in my pocket, slowed down to a walk and placing my right hand on the top of the shrine. “Yang, this next section is for you. Rest in peace.” I could feel the tears, the energy well up in my heart as I knelt down alongside the monument and took a moments to read a few lines from the English version of his epitaph. A huge smile beemed across my face as I tore off down the next few switchbacks. I was aware that we were all in this together, all in for the love of the mountains, the love of the sport.
I cupped some water in my hand as I passed by Lac du Fond, a gorgeous turquoise glacial lake. I rubbed the cool water all over my legs and face, again hoping to cool my body and avoid heat cramps. I threw my iPod back on and took off back down the mountain, singing Harrisburg by Josh Ritter out loud. “It’s a long way to Heaven, its closer to Harrisburg!” A few odd looks from the Italians only made me smile more. I was in a great mood and nothing would stop me for now.
Then. Cramp. Well, maybe a cramp would stop me. I felt my right calf tighten and violently contract as I pulled it up and over a rock, then suddenly my left calf contracted just the same. So long as I could avoid all rocks, I could shuffle my way down into the aid station at Planaval. I shuffled where I could and used my poles to lower my legs over the larger rocks, careful not to invoke a debilitating cramp.
Then within what seemed like no time, I was on the heels on the Joe Grant. Closely following him with a camera was Bryon Powell from iRunfar. My headphones were in, my music was loud and my pace was too fast for anything other than a quick “hey!” Minutes later, I thought back to what Grant had told me about two hours ago. “Stop to pee, lose two places.” “Stop to interview, lose a place!” I wished I’d said to Bryon.
I ran down conservatively into Planaval catching up to Francesca Canepa on the descent and passing her into the town. I checked in and then ran through the aid station to meet my crew just on the other side. Jade handed me the first “Nick Slam” of the race, a 16oz water bottle with 2 scoops of Carbo Pro and two scoops of Interphase Protein Recovery. Although a bit watered down, it was just the boost I needed. Another handful of pills went down the throat. Jade ensured that I had enough salts and Sean reloaded my gels for the next section.
“See you in 45 minutes at Valgrisanche, Nick!” said Jade. A quick kiss and an energizing hug from my girlfriend sent me powering off back down the road.
It wasn’t more than five minutes into the next section before I spotted Christophe Le Saux’s Lions Mane of hair bouncing in the nearby distance. Huge crowds and an even bigger roar of cowbells meant that Christophe had just come into the first life base of the race, Valgrisanche, kilometer 48.0. I ran down the short grassy hill to my own chorus of cowbells and cheers. Ivan, speaker of the Tor announced me over the microphone and I gave him a big hug and smile, waving at the crowds and absorbing all the positive energy I could. “Grazie, grazie, tutti!”
|Gear check and hot tea at Valgrisanche (48.0km)|
I grabbed a banana in the aid station and headed out the door passing Le Saux in the process. Right before I left the base the race staff conducted a random mandatory gear screening. Although a minor annoyance in terms of my time, I was glad they’d implemented the rule this year. While the volunteers investigated the world’s tightest packing job, I slugged down a few cups of hot delicious fresh mint tea that my friend’s from Courmayeur had brought me. God, the stuff was good. “Allez, Nick, tutto benne?” The cheering ensued and I pulled Jade through the guard barrier grabbed her for a slighter longer kiss and a slightly more energetic hug. Next up was Col Fenetre. I was going to need it.
I made it about three minutes away from the aid station chewing down the banana I’d just grabbed,when I stopped for about a minute to watch the “Batailles des Reines” the Italian cow battles, which were a long pastoral tradition in the region. One female cow butted horns with another large female and I watched as the two pushed each other back and forth until #65, as she was branded, finally backed off and #78 was the victor! “Between the cows, it’s a battle of the mind,” a friend had told me last year, just like this race.
Stage 2: Valgrisanche (48.0km) to Cogne (100.0km)
The battle of the mind begins
The next climb was Col Fenetre. Standing at 2,800m, it was a long traversing 1,200m (4,000ft climb) to the top. I was through Valgrisanche about two hours faster than I was the previous year. Not that it mattered. I felt great and I focused my entire existence on swallowing down this Banana. I knew that getting down calories was going to key in getting me up and over this Col.
It wasn’t long at all before I was on the heels of seventh place Matteo, an Italian runner from somewhere outside of Aosta Valley.
“Mangari? You doing well with eating?” I tried my best to ask in broken “Spitalian.”
“Benne tutto, benne e te?” he said to me.
“Aunque yo benne” I said and smiled back to him.
I knew this portion was riddled with false summits and similar looking fields. I knew not to fall for the false hope that the halfway point Rifugio Chalet l’epee was looming “around this corner’”or fall into the destructive phrase “Oh, god, I hope it’s this corner” like I have so easily done in other races. Rather, I focused on the moment, the present: where was I? And what was I doing? How was my nutrition? Did I need to eat again? The answer was almost always yes.
Thirty minutes of traversing and shallow climbing through blueberry plants and pine trees brought me up out of the forest and into a long valley where, on the other end, I caught a distant glimpse of Antoinne Guillame, currently running in 5th place. Not that it mattered.
I coasted into Chalet l’epee the Rifugio at the halfway point up the climb as the sun was just beginning to set (GRIVEL PHOTO). Antoinne made a quick turn around here and I did just the same, refilling my bottles and getting down a few oranges, then leaving.
|Great shot, displaying the talented work of the GRIVEL photo team at Col Fenetre.|
The sun began to set on the mountains to my back. Up ahead I could now hear the clicking of Antoinne’s poles. Striking distance. But it was only day one. The field of grass was illuminated in the sun’s last flare, a strikingly beautiful green-yellow contrasting against the massive gray-white rocks of the high alps. What an honor it was to be running out here.
The climb to Fenetre wasn’t steep until the very end. I took advantage of the shallow grades and sped my climb up until I was on the heels of Antoinne finishing out the last hundred meters of the climb and gaining about a minute on him. Again. Not that it mattered.
I threw on my iPod headphones and kept to myself, using my poles to brace the impact of the wickedly steep descent. Antoinne and I played leap frog for a bit before I pulled away.
I wondered for a moment, was he hovering back in the race? Just like me? I decided to take it down a notch despite the music that was pumping me up. And then my body decided to help me take it down even another notch. Cramps. God-awful leg cramps of death had returned. I went to lift my leg over a small step, plantar flexing my right foot, when suddenly my calf muscle locked, followed simultaneously by my entire hamstring muscle which shot painfully up into my glute. I hobbled forward relying on the poles to move my cramping muscles downhill. More rocks, more technical terrain only meant more cramps. Had it been a smooth trail, I could have been running down but the technical terrain demanded odd angles, odd flexion which resulted in cramp after cramp. Antoinne was quick to catch me again.
“Cramp?” He said to me in a French accent.
“Oui,” I responded. He stopped for a brief moment, helped me place my foot on a rock and stretched my calf back.
“Oui, merci!” I said back to him.What an amazingly nice guy I thought! I’d do the same back for him if he was in my position. From then on, things were far less cut throat and much more “let’s just get down this mountain together, it’s day one after all.”
Night-time fell about fifteen minutes before Rhemes where I planned on picking up my first pacer of the race, my great friend Sean who’d I’d met back in Nicaragua in February. Sean, I knew, was a great athlete and an even better strategist. His presence and intelligence would become a vital part of my race success.
In Rhemes, I stopped briefly and took off my pack. Jade handed me pills and a Nick Slam. I then drank down about four cups of Enervit, the weird Italian electrolyte drink and distant relative to a much more flavorful Gatorade. A quick bite of cheese and the reapplication of some body glide and I was off. Not five minutes had gone by before I was out of the station. This year I was on borrowed time. I was proud with how efficient my crew and I were.
“Slow and steady, Nick, stay on top of your nutrition, get that banana down!” Sean said, reminding me of the banana I’d stuffed in my waist pack. He was right, nutrition and constant movement won TDG, not single frantic ascents. I kept my headlamp down, dug my poles into the ground and focused on the present.
I occupied myself by retelling and visualizing the entirety of the climb ahead of me. Despite having not been on it in a year, Sean was astounded by the accuracy of my memory. There was a reason I finished Barkley.
I kept my head down, kept focused, kept moving efficiently around each switch back. It was hard not to focus on the fact that about twenty minutes into the climb about three lights had appeared underneath me and were climbing towards me quickly. Whoever was in 7th and beyond were gaining on me quickly.
“None of this matters though, Nick” I said to myself out loud. I then purposely slowed down, and thought back to the yoga session I’d done with Betta Gobbi the day prior to the race. Right nostril, energize, left nostril, relax. Sat….Nam…breathe in…breathe out. I was in control.
The smell of the high mountain air was revitalizing and fresh. The full moon was just starting to peak over the mountains to my right and I could see lights ahead of me on several different tiers of the climb perhaps at most thirty minutes away from me, a time distance that meant nothing in a race like this.
Sean and I climbed higher and higher. I could finally see the red blinking light indicating the top of the climb some hundred meters beyond me. The final pitch of Entrolor was just as I remembered. Wicked steep and wicked technical. We crossed a car sized boulder field and then climbed onto the side of a large rock affixed with ropes and steel rebar to help with the ascent onto the knife blade ridge. It was times like this that I was thankful I’d overcome the fear of heights I had back when I was a kid. I glanced over my right shoulder and peered down what must have been at least a 200 meter ledge and distant runners’ lights even further below.
The both of us then proceeded to the top of Col Entrolor. It wasn’t a surprise, but I was equally amazed as I was last year to see two smiling and energetic volunteers cheering me on as I topped out, kissing the marker at the top of Col. TDG’s race organization and volunteers are unparalleled.
On the other side of the mountain a headlamp teased me from some 300 feet below. Striking distance. But it wasn’t time. Not yet. We held back patiently.
“Calm and controlled, Nick,” Sean said. “Don’t go at this descent full blast, you’ve got another one the same size if not bigger right after.” He was right, there was no reason to destroy myself here. That would come 48 hours from now.
We stayed constant. I threw on my iPod and started singing out loud Hooked on a Feeling from the “Guardians of the Galaxy” soundtrack. Although I normally despise 80’s music, I found this song uplifting and fun to sing along to. I reminded myself of Jade, waiting at this moment at some foreign faraway aid station for me with my friend Augusto who didn’t speak a lick of English (nor Jade a lick of Italian). Sean laughed and smiled behind me listening to his own iPod and humming some techno tune.
We gained on no one and no one passed us. It was a perfect descent. Just relentlessly long. Despite a conservative start, I came into Eaux Roussess tired and beat from the descent. I was snappy with Jade and sloppily scarfed down a bowl of small pasta and broth. She couldn’t find the sunflower butter I wanted to snack on. Instead I grabbed as many small apple tarts as I could, hoping the sugars and quick carbs would sustain me over the next three hour climb. A quick hug and kiss from her and I was gone back into the darkness.
|Headed back into the darkness at Eaux Rousses|
Col Loson was up next. The beast of a mountain was by far the biggest and longest climb of the race. A whopping 1,600m (7,000ft) climb. Endless shallow grade switch backs laid ahead of me. They were never ending. The full moon was bright and you could almost turn off your headlamp to hike up the mountain. I was tempted just to screw with the people who seemed to be constantly on my tail.
About two hours into the climb, I’d slimed down my 25th gel of the race and had to try hard not to puke it all up as I washed it down with a healthy swig of Carbo Pro. Although not the best tasting, washing down calories with calories was working for me at this point in the race.
Around 300 meter before the top of the climb, Sean started to drift off. We’d both made the mistake of looking up the col and seeing not only lights of other runners approaching the top, but the damned blinking star that I’d warned Sean about on Col Entrolor. The blinking star, of course, signified the top of Col Loson, a destination that two hours into the same climb seems almost an infinite distance away.
Light after light lit the trail beneath me in the final steep scree-covered slopes of Col Loson. Sean was falling back and told me to go on without him. I didn’t argue and pressed on hard without him, putting some distance on me and the string on runner’s lights below me.
Another courageous volunteer sat atop Col Loson at 3,300m (11,000ft).
“There is warm tea right down and around the corner if you’d like,” they said. The race organization had flown an entire trailer to the top of the 11,000ft Col Loson, the trailer was full of Coca-Cola, frizzy water, natural water and hot tea and coffee. Sipping on warm tea and staring into the full moon over the high alps, I ignored the pain in my legs. I was in a good place.
Seconds later a headlamp burst over the pass and started towards me. Time to go. They’d catch me on this descent, I was sure, but I wanted to hold them off until the half-way point at Rifugio Sella. I took it as easy as possible again on the descent, conscious of the fact that whatever I did to my knees today would have lasting impact the rest of the race.
Whoever was behind me was now only a 100m or so back as I saw the bright lights of Rifugio Sella. My legs, as if on auto-pilot, hiked right into the warm mountain hut. I went straight for some warm tea and ate a few dry apple tarts, turning around to leave just as Matteo from earlier walked through the door.
It wasn’t more than a few minutes alone on the trail before Matteo caught up to me. I motioned to let him ahead but he stayed behind and the of us talked about the race and sleep deprivation. Matteo mentioned he’d be taking a one hour sleep when he got into Cogne. I didn’t say much back, but knew in my mind that I wouldn’t be napping for another 24 hours at least.
Then we hit a technical section. About 400m (1,500ft) of angular rocks, tree roots, stairs and mud. Nothing that two years of the HURT 100 in Hawaii hadn’t prepared me for. But for Matteo, a recent road runner cross over, I could tell navigating through this type of terrain under a headlamp wasn’t easy. I quickly lost him and began to refocus on my own race and my performance.
“Was I being sustainable? Would my knees forgive me?” I asked myself.
The small town of Cogne looked abandoned at 4:50am as I was passing through. That was, except for Augusto who was waiting for me when I turned the corner towards the life base. Preoccupied by fact that I’d been such a jerk to Jade at the last aid station, I asked immediately, “How is Jade? Where is she? Is she awake? I need to apologize to her.”
“Don’t worry about, Jade, Nick, you need to just worry about your race,” Augusto said back to me.
There Jade was though, right on the other side of the check in table, wrapped in three layers of coat and smiling.
|Getting my grub on at Cogne 100.0km|
“Sorry for being such a dick at the last aid station, Jade.” Checking in, I thought it was funny how I’d just climbed over 7,000ft and descended almost over 8,000ft but my sole concern was upsetting Jade.
Stage 3: Cogne (100.0km) to Donnas (150.0km)
Here's to now-Ugly Casanova
In the life base, I was astounded and taken back to see Oscar Perez Lopez, last year’s second place and the previous year’s winner. Either I was doing something right or he was doing something wrong. I sat down and changed into my Inov8 Race Ultra 290’s while Jade took and refilled my pack.
I tried to eat as much as I could in the aid station. I ate half of an egg. Then half of a cup of yogurt. Why was I eating heavy dairy? Don’t ask. I then drank half a swig of coke, followed by pasta covered in parmesan cheese and finished that off with some soup. One of the oddest combinations of food to arrive in my stomach throughout the entire race.
“Jade, I’ve got 6 scoops of Carbo-pro going into this next section right?” She nodded. At least I’d be eating somewhat normally on the trail.
I ran out the life base just in time to see Canepa and Le Saux enter. They’d catch me shortly I was sure.
I recall last year at this point that the sun was already up. This year the sun had a long ways to go. I started a labored jog until the God-awful grumbling sounds in my stomach from brought me back to walk. It wasn’t long before a light caught up to me from behind. A focused and determined looking Canepa passed me running strong and steady. I followed her across the river via the bridge and along the road to Lillaz where the two of us played leap-frog for a brief moment before I started up the ascent towards Goilles.
I’d been freezing cold from the moment I’d left Cogne, but, now warmed up, I needed to take off my jacket. In that short second, Canepa passed me again, looking strong and determined as ever. I followed distantly in her path, not letting her leave my sight until she finally pulled away from me on a flatter section.
I remembered the Goilles checkpoint from last year’s race where I’d made the mistake of putting frizzy water in my bottle and squirting water from my nipples for about a mile. I’d remember well not to make the same mistake this year. As I ran into the small aid station, no one was outside and in the nearby distance I could hear the click of Canepa’s poles. Obviously she’d just come through here.
In my tired, sleep deprived state I leaned over the aid station table for a bottle of unopened Pepsi and ended up knocking the bottle over making a bunch of noise and alarming the volunteer inside the house to step outside.
“Would you like tea or hot coffee?” They asked politely. The volunteers of this race were the best.
“Tea would be great!” I drank down the warm liquid which seemed to finally quell the egg, yogurt and coke combination I’d done to myself earlier.
The volunteer told me right as I left the small aid station, “Numero seis”. Odd. I thought I was number 7 at least, as Canepa had passed me here. Whatever, it didn’t matter at this point of the race anyway.
Corner after corner, we remained on single track. I was confused. Was I on the right course? According to the flags, yes. I could see Canepa’s light nearby and not far ahead, maybe a minute. I strongly recalled this portion of the race last year ascending through grassy field after grassy field and then ending with a long tedious ascent on an asphalt and gravel jeep road. Nothing like this flagged single track I was currently on. This had to be a new route than last year’s.
More dark switch backs led me further and further up the climb. I was drowsy but awake. Sun would arrive in the next thirty minutes. Then a huge surprise. I turned the corner my light fixed on the back of what I thought was surely Canepa but illuminated a red jacket and red backpack which read in large letters “HOKA” could it be? No. Why?
It was. The grand champion of Tor and my inspiration, Oscar Perez Lopez, looking very rough.
“Que onda? Una barra o algo asi?” I offered him what food I had on me, assuming he’d just hit some sort of a nutritional low.
“No, no todo bien gracias,” he said graciously and then went on to describe to me that his legs hadn’t been feeling well since the beginning of the race and he was having an issue summoning the strength out of them. He’d just finished traversing and climbing every peak in the Pyrenee’s above 3,000m so I could clearly understand why. It was heart breaking to see him in such a state. But my eyes quickly fixed on Canepa up ahead who was now a good 3-4 minutes beyond me.
Similar to other ascents, I knew this climb was riddled with false summits and familiar looking terrain. I knew not to get my hopes until I saw the actual Rifugio in the distance. I came over a small rise and watched in the distance as Canepa finished the last climb into the mountain hut. Right as I made the turn into the door of the hut myself, I made the mistake of looking back and could see a black figure with a large puff of hair, Le Saux.
Although position mattered little at this point in the race being caught still made me uneasy. I poured myself some hot soup while the volunteers covered me in a warm blanket, my body steaming in the cold room. I glanced over at Canepa who had curled up onto a couch and was sipping down a bottle of water. I was on my last sip of soup when Christophe came through the door. He grabbed a few dry crackers and turned back out immediately. I followed him right out the door. Striking now would mean nothing. But I wasn’t letting him get away either.
Following about fifty meters behind Christophe, I focused on eating a handful of crumbled crackers, fontina cheese and dried meat. I was half choking, half breathing as I glanced up to analyze his movement, analyzed his walk. For just having competed in UTMB last weekend, he looked phenomenal.
Christophe took off down the Fenetre di Champorcher ahead of me. The two of us never more than seconds apart navigated over the boulders and eventually down onto the single track passing by Rifugio Dondena where last year I’d had my first ever encounter with a Turkish Bathroom.
Christophe and I followed each other closely leap frogging our way back and forth on the fire road-there was nothing more I hated than leap frogging during a race.
A Nick Slam, a handful of pills, more Enervit and a hug and a kiss from Jade and I was out of the checkpoint at Champorcher. Christophe had since gained a few minutes on me, as he’d blown right through the aid station. A potentially dangerous mistake on this section of the race.
|Headed towards Donnas from Champorcher|
Christophe’s blonde hair bounced up and down maybe a minute or so ahead of me. I tried my best to ignore his existence and refocus on my own race. I wove through small houses and over little bridges onto and off single track trails with waterfalls at almost every turn. This was likely the most scenic and intimate portion of the course.
My crew parked about a quarter of a mile up from the checkpoint at Pont boset to cheer me on. I stopped for a brief moment to kiss and hug Jade.
“See you soon in Donnas!” I yelled out to her as I ran down to the aid station to fill my water bottles. I looked back for a moment and saw that Christophe was hot on my tail. Not that it mattered. Not yet.
Minor changes in the course gave me hope that maybe we’d avert the random 300m climb in the middle of the descent. However, after crossing a beautiful new bridge my small glimmer of hope was shattered. The climb was just as steep, technical and annoying as I remembered from last year. This was TDG though, and I knew in my for a fact that there was not a single downhill in this entire race that was just ‘downhill’. In order to make it down the mountain you’ve got to gain at least 300m. That was the rule. And there was never an exception.
|Beautiful trails on the way down to Donnas|
I stopped for a brief moment and dipped my thighs and knee’s in the freezing cold water, splashing my face and cooling my muscles. I stood up the moment Christophe caught up to me and gestured to him that cooling off felt great. He took some water and rubbed it across his legs as well and smiled. Similar to what I’d experienced with Antoinne while descending to Rhemes, I know felt more a sense of companionship and brotherhood than the cut throat competitive edge I’d assumed was between us. He followed close to me through the winding, traversing descent down into Forte di Bard and I started to pull ahead and away from him on the flatter road sections leading into the next life base in Donnas.
The kilometers before arriving at Donnas are full of rich history and are some of my favorite kilometers of the race. I ran under the ancient roman arch atop 2,000 year old cobble stones and smiled as dozens of people and photographers cheered me on.
I arrived in Donnas at 12:18pm. Exactly 12 minutes ahead of Oscar Perez Lopez’s time from last year where he ran a 70hr and 32min TDG. I was dead on pace. I was full of energy and anxious to get in and out.
“Cold shower, let’s go!” I barked out to Sean. I stripped down and threw my body under the freezing water and somehow managed to stretch a bit after nearly 27 hour of hard mountain running. I changed all of my clothes, changed shoes and then sat down with a plate of food Jade had prepared for me.
|Eating slimey food in Donnas|
“I’ve got all the salty, slimey things I could find for you,” she said. I’d asked her at the last aid station to find me things I didn’t have to chew. I slimed down some pasta and potatoes, happy that I was eating a lot better than the odd combo I’d consumed back in Cogne.
I was taking time putting on some body glide when my friend rushed up to me and told me that Oscar Perez Lopez was back from the dead and only about ten minutes out!
“Gah, get me out of here!” A kiss, a hug, two bananas and an ice bandana I was back out.
Stage 4: Donnas (150.0km) to Gressoney (200.0km) AKA “the arena”
What we do in life echoes in eternity -Gladiator
I stuffed my face with the bananas, frustrated at the whole annoying concept of eating at this point. The goal was to load up though. The damned goal always seemed to loading up.
My friend Corrado walked alongside as we climbed up and over to Pont San Martin.
“Nick, you are doing so great, we are all so proud of you!”
“Nick, you are doing so great, we are all so proud of you!”
“This? This is nothing. I am just getting started. Just wait a day, you’ve seen nothing yet,” I told him, smiling with banana smeared all over my face. I was in control.
Arriving in Pont St. Martin a man dressed up in a devil costume chased me over the historic Ponte del Diablo. I loved the history that passed under my feet throughout the course.
|The historic and epic bridge of Pont St. Martin|
I then started the ascent cool, calm and collected, knowing I had a long way to go until I’d reach Rifugio Coda. The course went up and down through vineyards, houses and steep forest sections covered in rocks and manmade stairs. About half a mile before descending down into the small town of Perloz, I came across one of my favorite sections of the race. Large stones with hand carved grooves in the center of them lined the trail. The stones, I learned last year, were part of an ancient Roman Aquaduct built back somewhere around 3 a.c. I leaned down and traced my finger through one of the grooves, imagining the valley, the region and wondering what life must have been like here some 2,000 years ago.
At Perloz I took a quick second to dunk my head in the water and got some liquids down. I could tell by the amount of people speaking French at the aid station that Christophe must have not been far behind.
After crossing Ponte della Vecchia, a 314 year old bridge that spanned across a 600ft canyon, the course became a mix of road crossings and steep grassy ascents through old farm pastures. The exposed grassy slopes about a mile out from the aid station were the hardest. I knew what I was getting into though and the training I’d put in here three weeks ago were now paying off.
|Myself at Rifugio Coda, full of energy and smiling.|
I arrived in Sassa, three quarters of the way up to Rifugio Coda, full of energy and smiling. I was hours ahead of my pace from last year. It was 3:00pm and still several long hours before the sun would go down. I was stoked. Another Nick Slam, blueberries, pretzels and some peaches slimed their way down my throat. Jade loaded me up with espresso beans and gave a strong hug.
“Stay strong throughout the night” She said, smiling at me.
Donnas to Gressoney was the “hell” stage. Just ask any racer. The 56km stretch contained one specific portion, which I’d deemed the “arena.” Stretching only 16km from Rifugio Coda to Niel, the “arena” was a notoriously technical boulder strewn muddy slop fest. The “arena” murdered my race last year. I wasn’t going to let it do the same this time around.
Around fifteen minutes out from Rifugio Coda, I passed through about a dozen confused spectators, one person mistaking me for Oscar Perez Lopez from my Spanish-Italian mix that I spoke.
“Stati uniti, stati uniti!” I said to their surprise. What was a runner from the USA doing this far up front in a European mountain race? I was sure they wondered. Racing, that’s what.
The wind howled and fog pressed in hard on the spiny ridge leading up to Coda. I could see the building in the distance and hear the cowbells through the dense mist.
Three weeks ago, while running the course, I’d told the owner of the Rifugio I’d be there at 5:30pm exactly. It was 5:12pm when I opened the door to the mountain hut. I was early. I drank down three cups of warm tea, enjoyed a warm broth and grabbed a handful of moist looking apricot energy bars. I was anxious to get out and start fighting in the “arena.”
It was time. Time to test fate. Time to see what I was made of. Time to see if I was in fact any better than I was the previous year. Carles Rossill, who I’d tied with for 2nd at Ronda del Cims told me that if I was able to make it to Lago Vargno by day time, that I was in good shape for top 5 or better at TDG. Judging by the fact that it was only just now 5:30pm, I hoped I could cover 8km in under 2 and ½ hours.
I ran hard down the trails. Fully aware that the more technical terrain I could cover during the day, would mean the less time I’d waste during the night stumbling over rocks like last year.
I made it to Lago Vargno a full hour and a half before sundown. The volunteers told me that third place, Antoinne, was only about fifteen minutes ahead of me. Top 5? I was in top 5 already? I was sure there had been an error. Where had everyone else gone I wondered?
I forced my poles solidly into the soft soil, wanting to make the biggest dent in the “arena” as possible. I rushed up Col Marmontana, knowing that it’s non-technical fire-road could be covered quickly and that I needed to be on my way to Col della Vecchia, where the real technical terrain began.
At the top of the climb, I came across two farmers carrying a massive 30ft long piece of piping along a ridge. They yelled down and asked me,
“Fourth place! Is it hard?”
“Yes, it’s hard,” I replied, but then thought back to carrying the large piece of bamboo at the Survival Run earlier this year. “But not nearly as hard as what you both are doing!” They smiled and laughed. I turned back to the trail continuing up the mountain hoping that their cattle dogs would remain calm and not attack me as I skirted by a large herd of cows.
I quickly summited Col Marmontana and made haste across as many mud covered rocks as possible before the sunlight finally started to fade about a quarter of the way up on the next climb. My mind was still together in one piece, despite the lack of music and now 34hrs of running I had on my legs. I was literally hours ahead of schedule and couldn’t be more proud of myself. Towards the last few switchbacks on the boulder field towards Crena di Lou, I could feel my balance starting to waiver and used my poles to pull myself back onto the trail.
At the pass, I could easily make out the next checkpoint, a small temporary bivac only a few miles away. What I couldn’t see though was the fun part. Rock after rock, mud pile after mud pile this was ankle shattering terrain at it’s best and what I lived for! Or so I told myself.
A roar of “Allez, Nick!” “Allez, Chris!” welcomed me into the small overcrowded checkpoint. I looked behind me. Christophe was nowhere in sight but half the volunteers I guess had been expecting him instead of me. Double the cheers! I thought, grabbing a handful of fruit and a small swig of warm tea.
I was feeling strong and needed to keep that going until I arrived in Niel. I began running and power hiking down the technical traverse from Col della Vecchia and hit the grassy slopes before the muddy forest section, where last year I’d slipped into a horrible low. This year, I stayed strong. Stayed in my head, stayed in the present, smiled. I was happy, I was in control. There would be no stopping me.
Around the next corner was the sloppy mud-fest of a descent I’d been “awaiting” since I began this section. How quickly I could navigate through this in the fresh night would ultimately be the ‘crux’ of this stage of the race. I slipped over the first few rocks, catching myself with my poles right in time.
I comforted myself in thinking about the fact that my struggle here was not unique. That, in fact, no matter who you were or what your position you were in, you’d have to suffer through this section eventually.
The trail ascended and descended more times I care to take note of. I was getting tired and anxious to arrive at Niel. My eyes were starting to close on me and my vision was starting to blur. The dreaded sleep deprivation had begun. I was close to Niel though. I knew it. Only a few more of those damned small ascents.
I accidentally kicked a rock hard with my right foot then. The pain opened my eyes right up and I repeated to myself, “This is the best possible thing that could possibly happen to me right now.” Overly optimistic, I know, but thinking of “bad” situations like that in a race only brings out more positive energy, which is something I fed upon just as frequently as Carbo Pro during this race.
All the positive energy in the world couldn’t help me with what happened next though. A foolish miscalculation, I came across a pile of angular wet boulders. I stretched my right foot out forward hoping that the angle of the rock would hold my foot stable while the rest of my body would swing on past. It didn’t. Instead, it caught me foot flinging my whole body forward. I immediately let go of my poles and tumbled about ten feet down the trail before I finally stopped. I sat backwards in the middle of the trail, my poles some ten feet up the trail from me. I don’t know how I didn’t get injured. I don’t know who or what was watching over me, but I sat there for a good minute and thanked whatever presence was looking over me.
Shocked from the fall, I grabbed my poles and took my time walking gently into Niel.
More shrill cowbells and a flurry of “Forza, Nick!” lured me up the small hill to the check point at Niel. Jade appeared out of the crowd, grabbing my pack off and hustling me away from the crowd and into a tent. I laid down on the cot, covering myself in a blanket,
“I know I’m not allowed to say anything negative about this course…but,” I studdered for a moment. “But, okay, well, we just don’t talk about that descent down to here. We just don’t talk about it, okay?” She laughed and nodded her head helping lay me down in bed. Sean appeared in the door of the tent.
“Anything to eat or drink? Your ass is on borrowed time Nick, you got a thirty minute rest here and then you are out!” I drank a small cup of Enervit and laid my feet up on the bed, covered myself in blankets and tried to forget about who I was and what I was doing.
The pain pulsing through my legs made it difficult to sleep immediately. I remembered Betta’s exercise from yoga, left nostril breathing to relax. I closed my right nostril with my finger and breathed in slowly, counting to the number ten and going back to zero each time I hit ten. It was a slow process but I could feel my heart rate calm down after a short while I’d drifted off.
I could hear Jade and Sean speaking somewhere nearby.
“Nick’s almost caught Antoinne, I think he can hold it, so long as he stays smart and takes care of his nutrition.” I drifted off to sleep again and the next thing I heard was, “His thirty minutes is almost up.” I rose from the bed before Jade had a chance to open the tent and began putting my pack back on,
“All right, I’m good, let’s get me the hell out of here!” I stood up and limped up out of the tent, slipping on the minuscule grass hill leading out of the aid station. Sean would be with me from here to Gressoney. Things were going to be just fine.
The climb up to Col Lazoney was steeper than I remembered but the constant conversation with Sean kept it fresh and interesting. I told him about the three sections of the climb that I’d divided it into last year. The steep ascent through the forest, the even steeper side traverse to the old dilapidated farmhouse and finally the rocky traverse to the mud covered Col Lazoney brandished with old Himalayan peace flags.
On the climb up, Sean persistently reminded me to “keep fueling” and “keep eating” and “take another swig of Carbo Pro.” His commands were clockwork.
Just as the two of us rose out of the steep forest traverse, my headlamp’s light landed against the side wall of the dilapidated farm house. We were nearing the top of the Col already. I took a second and stared across the valley, only to spot one of the prettiest and most terrifying sights of the Tor. There was a massive lightning storm probably only about five miles away. Lightning hammered down from the skies and lit up the glacier covered mountains. While the full moon, even higher up, lit up whatever the lightning strikes missed. The wind near us picked up and howled as we pushed past the farm house. The way the wind was headed, the lightning storm could be on us in no time. I thought about this year’s Hardrock 100 and how third place had been struck by lightning mid-race atop one of the peaks. I didn’t want to go through the same thing. Sean and I then doubled our effort up the mountain at “escape lightning speed.”
At the top of the pass, the tattered and peace flags dangled in the heavy winds. I took one last look across the valley as lightning rained down from the stormy skies. This was awesome. This was Tor.
I had to hold myself back from vomiting as I squeezed down the 28th or so Salted Caramel flavored gel of the race.
“Yeah, Jade, just buy all the same flavor, I won’t care during the race,” I remember saying to her a month ago…Ugh…
The trail, well, wasn’t a trail, rather a modern revival of Shrek’s ogre swamp with yellow flags as far as my headlamp could illuminate. There was no keeping my shoes dry. Descending to Ober Loo, the random hobble of a halfway point to Gressoney, felt an infinity. Grass field after grass field, the footing was terrible…or, I mean, “challenging” as I corrected my thoughts.
Looking at the aid station, the array of cheeses, dried meats and crackers looked more like hor d’ourves at a wedding than it did an aid station but I made haste, downing as many little cracker sandwiches as I could make.
The rest of the descent was long and technical. My fatigue heightened and my pace slowed down to what felt like a crawl at some points. A group of spectators knew I was from California and started singing “California uber Alice!” which then continued to play on repeat in my head until finally arriving at the life base in Gressoney.
Arriving in Gressoney, I saw that the GRIVEL photographers had set up a small post outside and were waiting for me to pass by. I put on a smile, raised my arms and looked strong for a moment. But then sunk back down into my own self-pity as I hung at the far end of the tables next to the food. I’d grabbed a can of coke, yogurt and another egg. What the hell was I trying to eat?
|Quick! Look strong for the camera!|
“Dammit, Nick, not this combination again!” Sean said swiping away my coke and yogurt. He was right, I was certainly in no mind to be choosing my own food as he shoved a bowl of warm soup in front of me. I mumbled something about knee pain and three medics appeared out of nowhere, rubbing my legs vigorously with ice pouches.
|Are my knee's still attached? Okay cool.|
I’d just discovered the glorious taste of fontina cheese and warm soup and was playing with string cheese as if I was five years old when Jade and Augusto walked up to me.
“Change his shoes? Pack?” They were on it. They thought for me. I just needed to get this damned cheese unstuck from my cheek…
“Nick, once you get those shoes on, you’re on borrowed time! You get the hell out of here okay?” Sean said firmly to me.
“Okay…But I’m pretty tired man…Like I could totally use a 20 minute nap here…” There was no sympathy from them as Jade hugged me and slowly ushered me out the door back into the cold morning.
|It doesn't look like much, but I swear that's a game face!|
|Heading into Saint Jacque, Game face? Check.|
|"Borrowing time" to eat a delicious pizza|
|Arriving in Cuney, beaten but not destroyed|
Inside, I sat down, asked for a warm soup and immediately started scarfing down all food within a ten foot radius of me. My appetite was ravenous. I’d consumed almost the entire stock of saltine crackers by the time my soup finally arrived.
The main doctor of the Tor Medical Staff was there on sight and had heard about my knee issue from Betta, Sean and Jade. He recommended more salt and administered me a pain killer. Meanwhile, Jade grabbed my pack, refilled my food and sent me off to bed to sleep for fifteen minutes. I wasn’t going to argue.
I drifted off quickly to the nearby murmur of the race volunteers and slept about twelve minutes before the room exploded with cheer “Allez, Christophe!” He’d arrived. It was time to get going.
Christophe was gone and out the door within minutes after arriving. I knew from experience though that a quick turn-around like that could often end in disaster. I stayed back, I stayed conservative, I kept feeding myself as I walked on the trail, Jade and Fabrizio now towing behind.
|Jade and I headed out of Cuney towards Oyace|
“Two more Col’s, a Bivac and a wickedly steep and long descent and then we will be in Oyace” I said to Jade. “Just stick by my side, be careful on the rocks and if you need to go slow on something go slow, don’t let me push you at all!” My boyfriend protective instincts were kicking in and were actually much stronger than my instinct to go after or be even remotely concerned with Christophe. That is to say, there was still anxiety but it was nice to switch up the source.
The rain came down harder as the three of us pushed on towards the first of the two Cols. The terrain was more merciless and more technical than I remember. “Poor Jade, she’ll either hate me or have the time of her life here today,” I thought to myself. But there’s good reason that I love her because she was, of course, the latter of the two. I choked down a cookie at a bivac before the final ascent to Col Vessonaz.
Night came on and the weather worsened as we passed up and over the Col. Jade, myself and Fabrizio were glissading our way down the extremely steep, exposed and slippery backside of the mountain. The rain poured down harder and the wind whipped up a biting cold and blinding fog. My girlfriend was a bad-ass through and through.
In the far distance below, I could see Christophe’s light bouncing. He was bombing the descent from what it looked like. And bombing, as it turns out, usually ends in explosions as Christophe would find out the next day.
Jade kept me calm and controlled as we navigated down the tediously long descent. I asked her constantly, “Does this seem sustainable? Am I moving well?” her constant encouragement inspired me down the mountain.
About an hour into the descent, Jade looked over to me, puzzled, and said, “Where is that gate you’ve been talking about? Aren’t we near the bottom yet?” I assured her it was up ahead.
“I swear,” I said and she laughed. That was something she’d heard a million times on our runs together back in San Diego.
“Woooooo hoooooooo!” Jade slowed down and listened closely to the sounds outside the forest.
“We must be getting close to Oyace. I think I heard a crowd cheer in Christophe!” Jade said.
“But we haven’t passed the gate yet” I said, confused.
“But I just heard someone, listen,” she said. I slowed down as well and listened quietly to the forest. “Wooooo hoooooo.” There was the sound again. Jade then noticed it first. It was just an excited night owl in a nearby tree. God only knew how far we really were from the bottom of the accursed descent.
More minutes tumbled into another hour before we finally reached the gate and then crossed a small bridge, marking the end of the ceaseless descent. The “mandatory” 300m climb was right before the aid station at Oyace and I was wiped. I slimed down salted caramel gel #33 of the race and nearly puked. Oyace was close now.
Inside the aid station, I hugged Jade tightly and thanked her for everything she’d done for me. Then my brain started to melt. It was 11:00pm, the third night of the race. I didn’t dare calculate how long I’d been out there. Sean sat me down almost immediately and tossed a hot plate of lasagna in my face. I stared at the lasagna as the plate of food began to swirl and make faces and shapes. I needed to eat. My brain was melting.
“Christophe looks pretty God-awful. He turned around quickly to catch up together with Antoinne. The two of them are maybe only about ten minutes out from you right now,” Sean said. Antoinne had fallen this far back? I was surprised and realized for the first time that the podium was now up for grabs.
I stared emptily at the last few pieces of lasagna, Sean patted me on the back.
|Corrado, myself, Jade & Augusto refueling at Oyace|
“Borrowed time, Nick,” he said as he pushed me past the scanner and out of the aid station. I couldn’t help but wonder, who the hell’s time was I borrowing? And why were they such a dick!?
My good friend, Corrado, and his son, Dennis, joined me on the next portion of the race and I was for a brief moment awake, lucid and doing well. That quickly went very, very far south.
Fifteen minutes into the climb Corrado was walking ahead of me when all of a sudden his entire body began to swirl and warp out of shape. He was at most a fuzzy blur when I focused intensely on him. Shapes, faces, rocks and animals appeared all over the ground, in every rock and in every footstep. My mind was melting like a Salvador Dali clock. I kicked up some leaves and recoiled as I watch them all turn into spiders and run across the trail only to turn back into leaves and gently slide down the nearby cliff.
Corrado was murmuring something to me and Dennis was murmuring something else behind. I couldn’t stay straight. I could barely stand. I kicked a rock with every other foot step. I had to keep going though. I had to keep moving forward. That was the only way to get through this. I could sleep in Ollomont. Not here, not now, not on the trail. Suddenly I kicked a rock hard with my right foot and my body swerved left towards the edge of the trail and a sizeable cliff. Dennis yelled out and balanced me back just in time. Immediately I sat down.
“Corrado, I’ve got to lay down here for a second,” I said feebly. Corrado worried that I was going to just pass out for hours on end and recommended against it, but by the time he’d finished his sentence I was on the ground, murmuring to myself about the spiders and snakes that were crawling everywhere. Groaning loudly, I stood back up. I couldn’t sleep, this wasn’t the place, even if blurry Corrado and OMG WTF IS DENNIS!?!?! As I stood back up to take off my rain jacket, I saw that Dennis was missing half of his body. His upper body divided in two and separated like limbs of tree. His lower half was just gone, entirely gone. What the hell was I staring at??? I stuffed my rain jacket in my pack and said out loud to myself, “FIGHT IT, FIGHT IT, NICK, FIGHT, DAMMIT, COME ON!” I was breaking down into tears for no apparent reason. Fuzzy Corrado murmured something about a half-way point and moved what I assumed were hands to point out some old farm houses. I had no clue what was going on. We were moving forward though apparently, even if I was mentally, I was elsewhere.
|This is more or less what Dennis looked like to me.|
My vision went almost entirely black. “FIGHT IT, NICK, STAY AWAKE, COME ON!!!” I swallowed the remainder of the espresso beans Jade packed me from Oyace, then started to think of the Navy SEALS and the men and women who’d inspired me to get into ultras and these crazy races in the first place. I started talking to myself. “Dammit, Nick, what the hell would David Goggins think? Three days ,Nick? Really three days? You can’t handle three days worth of walking? Yet there are men and women overseas who have sacrificed their lives to fight for you and surely have endured more than three days sleep deprivation. And you’re sitting here being a little bitch about what sorry? I can’t hear you.”
“NICK, ABOUT WHAT??? COME ON, YOU PIECE OF SHIT, GET IT TO-FUCKING-GETHER RAGHHHHHHH!!!!!!!” I yelled out loud and scared the crap out of both Dennis and Corrado. I snapped. All the pain in body dissolved. Vanished. I tore off up the trail, running, high on adrenaline, sleep deprivation and whatever other chemicals I’d just unlocked in my body. The run quickly turned into a super-speed hike and super-speed quickly turned into just a speed-hike, but I felt strong again. I felt awake. I felt alive. I’d dove to the darkest depths of my mind and emerged victorious.
I saw the lights of Antoinne and Christophe up ahead. They weren’t as far ahead as I thought they would have been. Ten minutes at the most. I was hungry to catch them. But it wasn’t time. Not yet. I needed to stay back and stay on top of my nutrition.
The final pitch of Col Brison was extremely steep but it looked beautiful under the full moon. Corrado pointed out that directly beneath me, some thousands of feet, was in the town of Ollomont. The descent was far steeper than I remember as I walked around the turns and braced myself as much as I could using my poles.
No nearby signs of Christophe or Antoinne which meant that their ability to descend was as good as or better than mine. However, arriving in Ollomont, I learned that even in my sleep deprived hallucinating state, I’d gained an entire nine minutes on the both of them.
Leading me upstairs, Jade told me that Trivel had dropped and I was now in fourth only minutes behind Christophe and Antoinne.
Now that both second and third place were up for grabs I wanted to ensure that I went into the next section fueled, sustainable and ready to fight. At the behest of Sean, Jade, Augusto and whose ever time that I was “borrowing” I laid in a bed, took my pills, my protein shake and a twenty minute nap. I knew from previous sections that despite the immediate time loss, the nap would be the last sleep I’d need to get me from here to the finish line in one fell swoop. And hopefully second place in the process.
Stage 7: Ollomont (295.0km) to Courmayeur (330.0km)
Jade woke me up and immediately placed a bowl of hot soup full of cheese on my lap. What a meal! I scarfed it down in seconds was down stairs and out the aid station.
Sean would join me now, from here to the finish line. I was stoked. His enthusiasm and intelligence combined with what little strength I had left would hopefully be enough to overtake Antoinne and Christophe.
The race was on, but we were strategic as ever. Antoinne and Christophe were only a few switchbacks ahead of me. I couldn’t quite see their lights through the forest but I could feel it. It would have been a fool’s error, though, to go after them this soon. They’d surely throw up a fight. I had to bide my time. I had to wait. Get closer. Let them see my light. Let them panic. Let them try to escape. I was persistence hunting.
Less than a kilometer from Rifugio Champillon, I was struck by a sudden onset of fatigue and sleep deprivation. My vision went blurry. I alerted Sean, who told me to keep pressing on but take several breathes through the nose. I did and it helped for a moment. But a minute later I found myself staring expressionless at an old man alongside the road who’d set up a table and was selling books. Was he real?
“Sean, did you see that old man there?” I looked back to the old man still sitting alongside his table.
“Nick!” Sean yelled out to me, “there is no old man! There is no one there! Just listen to the click of your poles, tick-tack, tick-tack stay present!”
Tick-tack, tick-tack, I brought myself back to ground. Back to the present, the old man vanished into the air. Sean was right. He never existed.
I spent less than a minute inside of checkpoint, enough for them to write down my number and have a sip of coffee. Either or Antoinne or Christophe was weakening, they were now only a minutes or so ahead of me. Looking ahead, I saw the full moon resting perfectly on the oval shape of the Col.
“Where are we headed Nick?” Sean asked me.
I pointed upwards towards the Col, towards where the moon rested. “To the moon!”
Sunrise came slowly as Sean and I conservatively worked our way down the mountain. There was no sight of Antoinne and Christophe, who must have sped up on the descent. They still had gas in them. I ate another bite of bar and prepared mentally for a long fight.
We crossed the small river at the bottom of the descent and began traversing left along a farm road. I saw three figures move by on the road above me. Antoinne, Christophe and a pacer I figured. Not five minutes went by before I was on another switchback when it happened. The look.The same look that I gave Benito Despacio when I overtook him atop Volcan Concepcion in Nicaragua, the same look I gave Armando when I caught him in the last five kilometers of Ronda del Cims. I looked up and made eye contact with Antoinne and Christophe and knew in that instant: I had them.
|"The look" captured from the Fuego y Agua Survival Run|
We continued to speed walk towards them at a constant pace. I told Sean over and over again, “I hate leap frogging. When we pass them, I want to pass them for good and be done. I don’t want any of this back and forth. Do it right and we do it once,” I said firmly. He couldn’t have agreed more. We were walking 100 meters back from the three of them. They were switching between a relaxed walk and what looked like a strained jog. Sean and I meanwhile were eating banan’s and loading up on food, speed walking and catching up to them. I wanted to hang back, stay back and just put the pressure on them. I wanted them to feel my presence, push and explode. They didn’t though.
They slowed down if anything and retained the relaxed walk, somewhat nonplussed by my presence.
“Okay, well…” I looked at Sean, he looked back at me. I’d just be wasting my time now if I stayed at their pace. We kept constant and caught them speed-walking.
Almost instantly they broke back into a jog.
“Weeeee, Nick,” Christophe said with a big smile. “Vroooommm!” He had his arms out and was acting like an airplane passing me. Antoinne remained calm and smiled when I made eye contact with him.
“Ciao, Christophe, ciao, Antoinne!” I said to both of them, smiling back. Their short run put all of five seconds between us, which quickly dissolved back into nothing the moment they started to walk again. They leap frogged us, switching between a walk and a run for about fifteen minutes before Sean and I finally put the hammer down and picked up the pace. It was just enough to put us out of distance of their occasional run. And once the trail broke into downhill, I knew we were close to Bosses and the two of us took off running. I’d secured second place at the moment, but was sure there would be a fight on the slopes of Col Malatra.
“Hot dog buns? Really?” I questioned Jade. The aid station at Bosses had nothing. I looked at Jade as she stuffed the buns into my waist belt, handing me the last two gels of the race as well. The end was near. It didn’t matter now. I’d fight Antoinne and Christophe fueled on hot dug buns if I had to.
Somehow in the last two miles before Bosses, Sean and I had put roughly fifteen minutes on Christophe and Antoinne, who at this point must have been walking. I approached Col Malatra conservatively, ensuring that I was on top of my nutrition and hydration as one mistake here could cost me second place.
On the way up Malatra, I kept looking back over my shoulder, expecting to see Antoinne surging towards me. Nothing as far as the eye could see on the course. It was the polar opposite of my experience from last year where Ono chased me right to the finish line. It would be what I would call a “soft finish.”
At the final ascent to Rifugio Frassati, I was astounded that not a single person had recognized I was racing TDG. I knew Colle passed by hours ago, but hoped someone would have noticed me. It wasn’t until I literally walked inside the door of the Rifugio and checked in that anyone there even gave me an “Allez!” For second place, it seemed an oddly stark contrast to the fanfare that had lined the rest of the race.
That all changed in the next four kilometers. The radio control at Frassati had told the organization that Sean and I were on our way to the top of Col Malatra.
I stood at the base of the final climb, staring at the narrow little chute and the last 300m or so that made up Col Malatra. This was it. This ascent and then it was practically over. It seemed absurd and impossible to fathom. But the two of us powered on.
All of sudden… WHOOSH! A huge whizzing overhead and a massive helicopter appeared landing right in front of dropping off a full film and photo crew. The three men ran out onto the trail to film me. I felt my adrenaline surge. The end was near. I dug my poles hard into the black earth and propelled myself forwards and upwards, each step one less I’d have to take, one step closer to the top, to the finish.
The camera men hopped back in the helicopter, which then proceeded to hover and follow me from about 100 meters away. The wind from the beast of a machine blew my hair all directions. Then, on the final pitch, a small bit of roped section ascending up a rock wall, the helicopter ascended high above Sean and I. Hovering around twenty feet above the actual pass, the wind from the wings blew soft ball sized rocks down towards Sean and I from the cliffs above. I shielded my eyes and turned my back to the onslaught of blinding rocks, dust and debris. The pilot upon viewing us realized what he was doing and quickly shifted locations.
Sean and I, full of power, adrenaline and infinity marched on. And then I stepped through the middle of the Col. Victorious.
“RAGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!” It was my loudest roar yet. I’d conquered Tor and was going to land in second place! And I’d run anyone to the death if they got in my way. I smiled immediately after that, then let the adrenaline do its work and carry me down the trail. I spread my arms out wide and pretended I was flying down the side of the pass. Effortlessly floating towards Rifugio Bonatti.
|Killing time :)|
I stopped only for a moment to refill my waters and grab a few tarts and some frizzy water for the road. I was still afraid that Ono, Antoinne or Christophe would appear at any second and overtake me.
The next 8kms were a tediously rolling up and down, traversing single track trail, made even more difficult by the fact that each corner looked the same as the next one. After an hour of traversing, I’d convinced myself that the next corner was for sure the corner that lead to Rifugio Bertone! Several corners and about thirty minutes later we’d finally passed through the final check point of the race.
On the final descent I gathered a train of about fifteen people–a combination of friends, journalists and fans. The energy, the excitement doubled with each step I took downwards. When I finally hit the cement leading to the last kilometer through town, it started to hit me. I was about to place second.
|Locals, family and friends bringing me to the finish|
Not top 10 like last year, not top 5, not even top 3, but 2nd overall. My heart rate skyrocketed, my pain ceased and more adults and kids crowded in from all sides to join me in the last hundred meters of the race.
I turned the corner onto the main street and saw that the entire GRIVEL team was waiting there dressed in the same jersey as me. My friend handed me a huge American flag and I doubled my pace onto the finishing stage. Proudly waving the flag, I jokingly collapsed on the stage from fatigue, the stood up and bowed down to the mountains and the people of Aosta.
|First American, First non-European to make the podium. 76hrs 29min's.|
“Il gigante e la montana io solo sonno un atleta” –Oscar Perez Lopez, Finishing speech 2012.