Photos by Stefano Jeantet
“When the runners leave Courmayeur, a dragon also leaves town. The runners go counter-clockwise. The dragon? He goes clockwise.” Ivan Parasacco, 58, looks up from behind his large, wooden desk on the third floor of the mayor’s office in Courmayeur, Italy. He stops for emphasis.
“Are you with me?” he says. I nod in assent because, well, like so many other runners during Italy’s 356-kilometer Tor des Géants, I too have fought the dragon."
“It starts with the hallucinations. A rock becomes a rabbit, then the faces appear.” Ivan pauses, sorting through a decade of memories as the public persona of the Tor, to find just the right example. “One year, it was not very cold, but a runner decided he was freezing to death. He called the helicopter. He was eight kilometers from the finish.”
Ivan speaks near-perfect English, thanks to two years spent teaching skiing in Crested Butte, Colorado, in the 1980s. Today, when he’s not the jovial master of ceremonies at the Tor finish line, he works as a Tourism and Sport Councilor for Italy’s northern Aosta valley and owns a sporting shop in nearby Dolonne. Only the occasional quirky syntax betrays his northern Italian upbringing.
“Another runner, he was completely hallucinated. He tried to jump off a bridge into the river, all the time saying Benvenuto.” (Benvenuto is the omnipresent Italian welcome greeting, like “hi” or “welcome.”)
Tor des Géants stats are hard to comprehend. Across its 356 kilometers, there’s 89,862 feet of climbing and descending. Each year, about half of the runners drop out. Those who finish usually take between four and six days, getting perhaps two to four hours of sleep a night. A typical winning time is between 75 and 80 hours. The women are close behind, with top results ranging from just under 80 to over 91 hours. 2,535 runners applied for the 900 slots in this year’s race, and 72 countries were represented at the start line. Thanks to generally good weather during this year’s Tor, 60 percent finished.
To support it all, an army of 3,000 volunteers are scattered among and between 43 aid stations and seven larger, strategically positioned “life bases” that offer hot food, cots for sleeping, showers, medical support and even massages. The Tor passes through 34 municipalities, each of which takes responsibility for its slice of the Tor, including organizing volunteers and managing aid stations. A rectangle roughly 40 miles east to west and 30 miles north to south, the Aosta valley region isn’t enormous, but because of the vertiginous topography, the communes are relatively isolated.
The Tor is so big, so long, so hard that in many ways it transcends the very notion of a trail race. Tor participants become wildly loyal to the event and form a unique bond forged through coping with great challenges. Many of them feel fundamentally changed afterwards. Organizers like Parasacco talk of dragons, and the very reality of participants goes so full-on Alice in Wonderland that rocks become rabbits and longtime ultrarunners declare that they have lost their minds.
How can one trail race have such profound impacts?
One place to begin to get answers is the Tor’s genesis moment, at a small gathering of trail runners a dozen years ago.
I am in the starting corral, with 956 other runners, when one nagging thought rises above the pre-Tor static in my brain. I have no idea if I am ready. How do you prepare for something, when you can’t fully grasp the enormity of the task ahead? I flash to a line one of my brothers told me, when I tried to explain the Tor. “You’ve been training for this your whole life,” he said. I grab ahold of that thought. I don’t know it then, but it will power me through the long nights ahead.
The countdown, heard throughout the old village, ticks down—tre! due! uno!—and we are off, running through Courmayeur’s Via Roma, a narrow, cobblestoned pedestrian-only road in the heart of this 800-year old town. The next time I am here, I think, I will have stories to tell.
In September 2009, four trail runners set off from Courmayeur, two men and two women. They were setting out to test an audacious concept: could they race a 200-mile loop through some of the highest peaks in Europe, without blowing up? Or, was the route simply beyond the capabilities of most, if not all, trail runners? And if they were successful, what would happen to their bodies?
The idea was the brainchild of Allesandra Nicoletti, then president of a small, local trail-running club called the Courmayeur Trailers. Sitting around the table at a club meeting in 2007, Nicoletti’s eyes traced a gigantic loop that wended its way along two of Europe’s most famous long-distance trails, the Alta Via 1 and 2. In doing so, it passed over 25 mountain passes. The idea was bold—perhaps even a pipe dream.
“We understood it might be possible,” said Nicoletti, 55. With sometimes errant, graying, curly hair, she flashes between a stern seriousness one moment, then suddenly beams and laughs out loud the next. “But we also knew it just might not work.”
For the ensuing two years, club members studied the route, pouring over maps, measuring distances between huts, even using a computer program to estimate the speed of a trail runner on the course.
In the end, there was just one way to know for sure.
The weather didn’t cooperate for their trial run. The group experienced near-constant rain, with snow at higher elevations. Nicoletti supported the group with a camper van, while club partner Ermanno Pollet drove a truck, enabling them to reach more remote outposts. 150 hours later, the group had looped its way back to Courmayeur. They had their answer.
The race was greenlighted, and a new company, VDA Trailers (Aosta Valley Trail Runners in English), was formed to manage it. But they needed a name for the event. What could possible capture the spirit of a multi-day loop through the highest peaks of northern Italy?
“The route passes by the giant mountains of the region,” explains Nicoletti. “Mont Blanc, The Gran Paradiso, Monte Rosa and the Cervino.” (The latter peak is better-known by its Swiss name, the Matterhorn.) That’s the first reason for the chosen name.
The second is the participants themselves, whom residents refer to as “the giants.” Throughout the event, the giants receive a hero’s welcome as they move through the towns on their way to Courmayeur. Finally, there is the path itself. The familiar name for the two high routes that comprise the Tor are the Alta Via Gigante, the high giant path, and Alta Via Selvaggia, the high wild path. It was the former that was the original inspiration. VDA Trailers had their name.
A year to the week after that test edition, on September 12, 2010, 300 runners stood on a starting line in Courmayeur, about to follow the route pioneered by Nicoletti and the four runners.
Stevie Haston, 62, one of the UK’s notable alpinists, was lined up at the start. This new race seemed incomprehensibly extreme to him.
“Even top athletes were apprehensive,” he says. “Nobody thought it was possible. You’re climbing over 3,000-meter high passes. Anything could have happened. It was in the hands of the Gods. Everyone was willing to give it a try, but we also knew we were mortal.”
Parasacco was there. “Everyone thought it was crazy, that it was impossible, that people could never run that far,” he says. “The runners, their faces had a look that asked, ‘Why the Hell am I doing this?’ The idea was,” Parasacco says, his face screwing up, “a little … dodgy.”
In the end, it worked. Haston finished, 82 out of 179 who made it back to Courmayeur. “In places, it was rougher than the Devil’s ass,” he recalls. Haston has climbed tough rock and ice routes around the world. Still, he says, “The Tor was one of the biggest events of my life.”
As 2010 came to a close, the Tor des Géants had pushed trail running and trail races to the edge of its known universe. And though they perhaps didn’t quite comprehend it yet, Nicoletti and the Valle d’Aosta Trailers had created something unlike any other race in the world.
“Watch the traverse!” my partner Dave’s voice rings clear through the quiet darkness. We are three hundred feet below Col Loson, and it’s sketchy. The snow has been compacted to ice by the runners who have come before. I have erred by not pulling the Microspikes from my big yellow Tor bag when I had the chance, 30 kilometers behind me.
I toss my head right, and my headlamp illuminates a steeply pitched boulderfield, dropping away to infinity. A slip means a helicopter ride, maybe worse. I fall back to routines from climbing. Weight over my feet, poles firmly planted. One after another, I tick off an airy sequence of moves. Then, I spot a yellow light flashing above me. It’s the top of the col and two guides, bundled in puffy jackets, are making sure everyone is arriving in one piece. In the space of a few feet, the terrain shifts, and it’s time to run downhill.
A Completely Different Mindset
“The Tor is to Hardrock as Hardrock is to Leadville.” Roch Horton, 62, for three decades a central figure in ultrarunning in the United States, is casting about, trying to capture just how hard the Tor is. The translation of Horton’s short-hand analogy? Leadville, Colorado’s famed 100-miler is not as hard as the Hardrock 100-miler, just 120 miles away, as the crow flies, in Silverton. Hardrock, after all, has an additional 22,000 feet of climbing compared with Leadville. And the Tor? It’s a huge step up from Hardrock, with yet another 56,000 feet of vert and an additional 105 miles—in essence, the equivalent of running Hardrock twice, back to back, in a single go.
“It’s next level,” says Horton. He should know. A past sales manager at Black Diamond Equipment, he is also the manager of 13,000-foot high Kroger’s Canteen, a legendary aid station that’s part of Hardrock. The Tor marked the 50th race of at least 100 miles for the Salt Lake City, Utah, resident.
There are several 200-mile trail races in the United States. But even two of the most notable, Tahoe 200 and Bigfoot 200, still only have half the climbing of the Tor, plus a 100-hour time limit, compared to the Tor’s 150-hour allotment. (Notably, the U.S. race calendar in 2020 will include California Untamed, a new 330-mile race that, even at that distance, falls shy of Tor’s vert by about 44,000 feet.)
You need a completely different mindset,” says Horton. “Forty-eight hours is a great goal for Hardrock. But with the Tor, you’re dealing with four to six days. There has to be a reckoning.”
If there is anything that rivals the Tor’s stats, it might be PTL, an event organized by the UTMB race organization, just on the other side of Mont Blanc from Courmayeur, in Chamonix, France. Three-hundred kilometers long and with comparable vertical to the Tor, the PTL is run in teams of three. The course, which varies each year, includes highly technical ridges, and requires strong route-finding skills. Importantly, the UTMB organization downplays any race aspect, preferring to talk about PTL as a tough, shared mountain experience.
In the end, looking for Tor comps might be fruitless. “Some things in life just can’t be compared,” says Horton. “They are unique. They stand alone, and that’s what we yearn for. The real comparison is between you and the event.” Horton pauses, reflecting, “By taking part, we give back to them just as they give to us.”
Dave and I have been climbing hard out of the Aosta valley town of Donnas, nearing the halfway point of the Tor. Below, the lights of the Aosta valley are like an electric snake, wending its way from Milan and Turin, north to Italy’s border at Mont Blanc. Up here, there are ancient medieval villages. La Sass, population 152, is next, and before long we hear music.
It is nearing midnight as we run along a cobblestone street hardly wide enough for a car. Pulling into the small aid station, we are welcomed effusively, with residents ringing cow bells for us. The welcome catches me off guard and I feel momentarily bewildered. Is the celebration really for us? Dave and I inhale cake and cookies, reload our packs and push on. There’s plenty of climbing ahead, some of it above treeline, and it’s starting to get cold.
A Bond Amid and Among the Giants
If that first edition that Haston took part in was brutally tough, it also had endearing qualities that carry through to this day.
First, there is the Aosta valley region itself, through which the Tor loops. “It’s devastatingly beautiful,” says Haston. Much of the first half of the route goes through the heart of Italy’s first national park, the 271-square mile Gran Paradiso. Groups of ibex and chamois cluster themselves amid the rocky, steep alpine terrain. Throughout the region, herders tend to flocks of sheep and goats, much as they have for centuries. After crossing the deep cleft of the Aosta valley, those who haven’t dropped from the race then yo-yo their way in and out of quiet valleys, the 14,690-foot high Matterhorn on the Swiss-Italian border always on their right.
Then, there are the people. The Aosta region is one of high peaks, and steep, quiet valleys. There is a deep, shared pride here, but the topography makes for an isolated existence. The Tor is perhaps the only event that pulls the villages together. As such, it holds a special place in the hearts of residents. “Each commune organizes itself,” explains Nicoletti. “We are an event with 34 organizers, each having to find volunteers, manage aid stations and oversee their portion of the race.”
“Being greeted by villagers with cowbells in the middle of the night at the top of high mountain passes is something I’ll never forget,” said Haston, of that first edition. That mountain hospitality is a recurring theme for Tor participants to this day. Shopkeepers and customers will stop mid-transaction so they can step onto the sidewalk to applaud a passing giant. In the village of Cogne, a streetside cafe serves the giants free cappuccinos, 24/7.
Finally, there is the bond that forms between participants. Over the many climbs and descents, and amid the dramatic vistas, friendships are forged among the runners, who share a “Band of Brothers”-like struggle. “You might be with a Chinese or a Russian runner for 10 or more hours,” says John Anderson, a three-time Tor participant from Tahoe, California. An emergency-room doctor, Anderson approaches the tour with an encyclopedic depth of knowledge balanced by an appreciation for the spiritual aspects of the experience. “You have limited communications, yet you have this really good sense of connection.”
Into that mix of mountain majesty and deep fellowship, the Tor throws a challenge so extreme, that it sends many runners into a mental vortex that becomes hard for others to fathom. According to Parasacco, “There is no one who comes back to Courmayeur the same.” Roch Horton was one who plumbed those depths. “Over the years,” he explains, searching for context, “I’ve run myself into some weird, dark places. I’ve had demons on my back.” Horton paused. “But this time,” he said, “I completely lost my mind.”
It’s the middle of our third night. I’m really tired. It’s getting cold as we climb toward the alpine zone. It’s time I let my partner know.
“I’m starting to hallucinate.”
“Yeah, me too.”
The simple exchange is comforting, even as things are getting weird. Boulders turn into cozy cabins. There are people in the woods, I think. A festive villa, glowing with lights, is an abandoned shell when I draw close. I’ve had 2 hours and 15 minutes of sleep so far, and the deficit is taking a toll.
Suffering Through The Magical Mystery Tor
“In a marathon you might hit the wall once, in the Tor, you’ll hit it 20 times.” Stephanie Case should know. The Canadian ultrarunner, now living in Chamonix, France, has run and finished the Tor four times, landing in sixth place, twice in fourth place, and once in second place. It is a late summer afternoon, as we sit at an outdoor table at Le Dahu Bistro in Courmayeur, mere feet away from the Via Roma that Tor participants will run down in their last moments of the race. One observation after another about her Tor experiences pour forth from the exuberant Case.
She seems an unlikely person willing to probe the depths of one’s ability to suffer. A lively, hyperenergetic spirit who’s frequently laugh-out-loud funny, Case is a human-rights lawyer and has spent spend much of the last few years in Afghanistan, where she works for the United Nations. As determined in her private life as her sports, she also founded the international non-profit Free to Run, which empowers girls in war-torn regions to get involved in sports. Amid her cohort of hard-driving elite ultrarunners, she has a reputation—nobody pushes themselves harder. In one Tor, Case neared kidney failure. “My kidneys are a weak point,” she explains. There is a hint of casualness in her voice.
“You need to decide ahead of the race what your red lines are,” she says.
“One year, I was really struggling. My crew asked me, ‘What would it take for you to drop out?’ I said, ‘Bones protruding from my body!’ You have to ask yourself, ‘Do you think I’m going to do permanent damage to my body if I keep going?’ Usually, there is no reason not to get back up and go.”
Most Tor participants experience nighttime hallucinations, too, the result of extreme fatigue. Case has experienced a particular dramatic version of this phenomenon. “It was my last night, and I wasn’t very steady. But, for a couple of hours, my friend Michael was with me, keeping me company.” Then, Case woke up in a ditch. Michael was gone. “I was pissed,” she says, assuming her friend had abandoned her. “Then I realized he had never been there.”
Some hallucinations probe deeper, engaging with a runner’s psyche. John Anderson once saw his deceased grandmother playing cards at a table with his daughter. The two never knew each other, his grandmother having passed away nine years before the birth of his daughter. As Anderson ran to catch them, the scene always floated 10 yards down the trail. “Here was this woman who helped raise me and my daughter she had never met,” says Anderson. “I really wanted to hear the conversation.”
And then, every so often, things go completely off the rails.
It is early morning and I am shuffling through the streets of Champoluc, Italy, 222 kilometers into the Tor. Tears are rolling down my face and I don’t know why.
Maybe it was the hard night before. Climbing a high alpine col, I looked at a cow in a pasture and saw a thousand-pound rabbit.
Maybe it was the look on the woman’s face. I had followed her for a half hour, listening to her out-loud Italian rantings to nobody in particular. When she turned around, I recoiled. Her sunken eyes were ringed with jet-black circles that frightened me. Was she a zombie, or a junked-up heroin addict in her last hours?
Maybe it was the story I had just heard from a fellow runner who awoke during the night on a high plateau. Lost and confused, she wandered in circles.
Or maybe the answer is a much simpler one that I don’t want to admit to myself. Maybe the Tor is just too fucking hard for me.
I avoid making eye contact with the shopkeepers opening up for the day. I feel embarrassed and ashamed and confused. But I am still moving forward.
Seeing the Dragon
“I got to Champoluc and I completely lost it,” says Horton. It was 1 a.m. in the morning and the town’s streetlights were casting shadows in the town’s park. Horton stopped in front of a series of carved wooden statues of forest creatures that struck him as impossibly eerie. He tried to remember: Where was he? What was he doing? And, even, who was he?
Horton was found by a passerby in a nearby parking lot. He had been walking in circles. “I tried to say, “’Excuse me,’ but I couldn’t put the words together. My brain,” said Horton, “Was completely gone.” A few hours later, after some coffee at a hut high above the village, Horton remembered the answer to at least one of those three questions. “Oh, yeah, I’m at the Tor des Géants!”
And that runner Parasacco mentioned, who threatened to jump off the bridge? The year was 2016, and John Anderson was there, running right alongside him. It was a stormy year for the Tor, with runners battling both rain and snow. Fifty kilometers from the finish, in the middle of the night, Anderson came across a runner who was staggering and moving slowly. Concerned for the runner, Anderson stuck with him. “We reached the next aid station, and he tells me, in a thick eastern European accent, ‘No sleep in three days! Just Red Bull!’”
Things started to unravel at the next hut, Frassati. High above treeline, heavy snow was falling. Anderson ducked inside to refuel with espresso and pie. “I said, ‘Aren’t you’re going to come in?’ He just stood in the doorway saying, “Oh, no, no, I’m good! I have Red Bull!”
A mile on, just below Col Malatra, things got weirder still. The Malatra “window” which Anderson and his over-energized friend had nearly reached, is a narrow passage through a high col barely wide enough for a runner. It comes after 332 kilometers. Runners reach Malatra and are confronted with the southern flanks of Mont Blanc. They are, for all intents and purposes, very nearly done with the Tor. Just an easy 16 kilometers remain.
“It’s pouring rain and snowing. He sat down on a rock and took off his shoes and sock, and said, ‘I change my socks here!’”
Worried about his Red Bull-swilling friend, who at this point was uttering nonsense, Anderson—himself more than a bit addled—accompanied him down the other side of the col to a small aid station, leaving him in the safety of several mountain guides staffing the outpost. “I told them, ‘He seems a little off.’”
Indeed. A day or two later, a friend asked Anderson, “Hey, did you hear about that guy?” Anderson’s Red Bull posterchild was found, naked and incoherent, threatening to jump off a bridge into the river below. He had blown a circuit. A helicopter evacuation later, his Tor was over. “He could have slept for two days, and still finished within the 150-hour time limit,” says Anderson, somewhat wistfully. “But he was too far gone.”
“I want to bring this in on my own.” Will, my cheerful partner for the last day or two, is understanding. On the Tor, no one judges you. I understand that soon it will be time to reengage with the world. Suddenly, I feel badly addicted. I want the Tor to go on forever.
Barring that, I decide to live these last moments as deeply as I can. I am so far inside myself, the outside world barely registers. I like this space. Somehow, I find big energy and decide to run hard. Courmayeur is minutes away.
A Giant Celebration
Stephanie Case loves to watch Tor finishers come into town. “It brings me to tears,” she says. “I’ll just be sobbing. The look they have in their eyes,” she says of the Tor finishers in their last moments of running, “You can’t get that look from anything else. It’s beautiful. It’s so raw. I just love what this race does to people.”
Balancing that beauty is a whole lot of pain. “The second year I did the Tor,” says Case, “I walked up to Bertone Refuge to see the last people on the course. I saw one person walking backwards, with a family member holding the other end of a trail running pole, helping them descend. I saw runners bent over sideways. There were people,” she says, “Who smelled like they were rotting from the inside out. But there was so much pride.”
Sunday, a week after the start, the Tor class of 2019 gathers for its graduation in the Dolonne Sports Center, across the glacier-fed Fiume Dora Baltea river from Courmayeur. One by one, last finisher first, each giant is called to run, walk or hobble down an aisle cordoned-off in the middle of the cavernous sports center auditorium, then cross the stage and receive an ovation from a packed hall of onlookers. All 565 head backstage, where they change into their new finisher shirts. Dressed in the bright yellow tops, they return to the stage, hold hands, and sing the Italian song, “I soliti.” A sampling of the lyrics roughly translate as:
We are those of great passions
We have dangerous habits
And we are alive almost by a miracle
We are free, free, free to fly
We have dangerous habits
and we have returned safe and sound
“It’s a group hug of 500 runners, all hungry and tired and sunburned,” observes Horton. “Whoever heard of that? I have to admit I shed a tear. I’ve never felt that before in anything I’ve ever done.”
Each participant has their own story, each story is different and each is valid. The 2019 Tor finisher Bob Crowley, of Fair Oaks, California, tapped into what might be the one overarching commonality: “In the end, all I can really tell you is this—I’m not the same person I was before the Tor.”
Doug Mayer lives in Chamonix, France, where he runs the tour company Run the Alps. Without his friends Simon and Jen, he would still be wandering incoherently around the Italian Alps. On September 13th, 2020, he will again find himself at the start of the Tor des Géants.