Tom Hollins: TOR Report

On 8th September, with some trepidation and a lot of excitement, I placed my feet on the start line of the Montane Tor Des Géants. This was the second year running I had tried to stand shoulder to shoulder with some of the world’s finest ultra runners at one of the world’s best events. Last year had seen me DNF 1/3 of the way in, unable to cope with the heat and the 3000m plus cols. This year I had come out 2 weeks before the race and spent some time at altitude. I knew what to expect. Mentally I was stoked, but I also knew to hold myself in check ready for the onslaught to come.

This year I had come out 2 weeks before the race and spent some time at altitude. I knew what to expect. Mentally I was stoked, but I also knew to hold myself in check ready for the onslaught to come.

I promise i was enjoying the start.

The carnival atmosphere at the start line was amazing. But this year, instead of it heightening the nerves, I just soaked up the vibe and smiled it back out. This was going to be good. The previous day the UTMR had been stopped due to snow. Provided the race kept going these were much better conditions to be a northern European than last year. A constant stream of snowflakes trickling down and cowbells ringing all around. A perfect winter wonderland. Other than the guy screaming Allez! Allez! Allez! Forza! Forza! on the megaphone at the top of his voice. What a laugh!

After the first col the race soon settled down into a steady pace. I had told myself I was going to be 500th at the top of the first hill and 50th at the finish. I can’t have been far off my first ambition. The second might be a bit harder to achieve. I just kept going steady and enjoying the atmosphere. Chatting to a few people and then picking up a new friend in Ake Fagereng for a few hours. We were both using a HR monitor to try and keep our speed down, and we ascended and descended at the same pace – a match made in heaven. When it got to the +3000m passes Ake decided to stop briefly for a rest and I decided to push on. It was going to be night time/ early morning and I had swapped to VIA Trail Series Long Tights and added an Allez Micro Hoodie over my long sleeve base layer.

This worked great for the first pass and I was still feeling good coming up the second. There was quite a lot of snow here which had compacted into ice, and on steep ground that meant keeping the speed down, which also meant getting a bit colder. I realised my first mistake. I had forgotten my Tornado gloves. They were perfect for these conditions but my fingers were now going to have to go it alone. By the time I got to 2800m they were freezing with 500m left to climb. At 3000m I had to stop using my poles as I couldn’t feel my hands anymore,  which made the ground a bit more treacherous but I didn’t want to get frost nip that would pull me out of the race. I tucked my hands into my Minimus Ultra Stretch Jacket and that warmed them up with a bit more time. Once over the col I was in the sun and it was hot. I made a good descent down into Cogne running with Simon Gfeller and being cheered on by the Montane team. Sadly Simon wasn’t feeling too good and pulled out at Cogne leaving me heading on alone.

The next section into Donnas went well and I was steadily picking up places. There was some great scenery to keep me motivated and the weather still wasn’t too hot. Arriving at Donnas I had planned to push on to Refugio Coda to sleep but I felt exhausted at this point and decided I should try and get 3hrs rest. I had been told that Donnas was difficult to sleep at due to the heat but it wasn’t hot this year so surely all should be OK? No is the answer. I wasn’t the only person coughing my heart out with the cold air and altitude. I tried for a couple of hours but got about 30 minutes and eventually gave up, before pushing on and then having to stop again at the refuge to sleep properly.

I’ve always been a bit smug about sleep in races. My strategy is usually good. I know when to prioritise it and sleeping well has often got me ahead of stronger runners. Plus when you are well rested you always enjoy the race a lot more. Donnas onwards began a period of trying to sleep and not being able, wherever I tried, that lasted pretty much all the way to the finish. Sara was a saint at the support points (I was not showing my best sides). When out on the mountain I was still generally having fun, but there were some sections where I could hardly move. And I was fit before this race. I could feel the frustration in my legs at not being able to move faster. Particular high points were being woken by cowbells and banging my head on the bunk so hard at the Rifugio Grand Tourmalin that I soaked the pillow with blood, and not being allowed to sleep on col Brison by the marshalls and being dragged into one of those plastic boxes only to find I couldn’t sleep due to their radio and having to crawl down the mountain to Ollomont to avoid falling over. Even a hug from Kevin Hadfield at Valtournenche wasn’t enough to lift me up.

Fellow Montane Athlete Kevin Hadfield – 19th place finisher and 2nd best hugger in the 2019 TOR

After Ollomont the weather was set fair. My knee was hurting and I was still tired. I had eaten more bread and cheese than I usually do in a month. I struggled on to Bosses and looked at my watch. It was still 7 to 8hrs to the finish. I needed to put a spurt on if I was going to come in under 100hrs. That – and the weather – reset my goals. I had promised I would do under 100 and I didn’t want to fail now. I took some paracetamol and swapped to drinking coke at aid stations. I don’t do much caffeinated drinks normally and this meant that I was pretty much high as a kite for the remaining distance. I started moving again and I had a massive smile on Col Malatra. Despite the altitude everything felt easy again and I was looking forward to the mainly downhill leading to Courmayeur and the finish.

I set off at a good pace, and a good job I did too, not realising how much up as well as down there is in the next section. I kept pushing harder and harder and when I reached Bertone I still had only 48 minutes to get home in under 100 with a very technical descent to finish. I had planned an hour for this section if moving OK.

More coke. Some biscuits. Some BOFRA style descending. SO MUCH FUN. Once I was down I knew I was going to be within the time. Terry Conway and Paul Tierney were both out cheering me on. Thanks guys. A big smile. High 5-ing all the children at the finish line. 99hrs55 minutes. Hug Sara. A few tears. 40th place. Not bad for a man whose legs still feel OK. Have a sleep. And start planning for next year…

Summary

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