330 kilometers covered inside 150 hours – that’s the Tor des Géants. This ultra trail-running event in the Italian Alps is one of the world’s toughest non-stop races. It’s one foot in front of the other, by day and by night, in blazing sunshine, rain, hail and snow. Any time for sleep? Sure. After you finish.
330 kilometers in 150 hours, such are the bare facts about Tor des Géants, a murderous trail run through the Italian Alps. And while we’re on facts and figures, what about a total elevation gain of 24,000 meters, 25 mountain passes to cross and – for those with the strength to care – 30 Alpine lakes to admire. This is one of the longest non-stop footraces on the international calendar – non-stop because the runners get little or no sleep from start to finish. This ultra-endurance run was first staged only six years ago but already the event in Italy’s Aosta Valley has attained legendary status. Not only because of the huge distance of 330 kilometers but also because something decisive is missing: there are no compulsory stages. Unlike in most trail runs, the organizers don’t define where a stage starts and ends but instead set a time limit of 150 hours within which to complete the distance. So theoretically a runner could cover the whole trail in one go, with no breaks of any real length. In practical terms, though, it calls for careful planning by each competitor. Deciding which checkpoint or life base would be best for a short nap and where to deposit a drop bag helps make the Tor des Géants – Tour of Giants in the local Valdôtain dialect – a truly extreme trail run. Talking of languages, the official languages in the Aosta Valley, an autonomous region of northwestern Italy, are Italian and French.
Another remarkable feature is the route the trail follows. Tor des Géants is widely considered not only one of the world’s most strenuous “ultras” but also one of the most spectacular in terms of scenery. The course follows the two main mountain trails in the Aosta Valley, starting and finishing in the village of Courmayeur at the heart of the Italian Alps. From here, the trail threads along in the shadow of the highest four-thousanders, among them Mont Blanc, Gran Paradiso, Monte Rosa and the Matterhorn, before spinning out through Mont Avic regional park. The runners particularly like to recall their night-time experiences. “The first night I came over a col and was dumbstruck by the vast star-studded sky laid out against a panorama of Alpine peaks – an incredible moment,” recalls Spain’s Javi Dominguez, who won the 2017 edition of the TdG. “As I headed downhill again, I saw a strong light and I thought, it’s a cameraman, but then I realized it was the moon lighting my way. Incredible!”
When the runners reach the hamlet of Donnas they are just 300 meters above sea level. When they crest Col Lauson, they briefly touch almost 3,300 meters. The trail follows mountain paths, ultra-narrow goat tracks and treacherous scree fields, meanders across rich green Alpine pastures and runs alongside snow-covered glaciers. The differences in altitude are matched by strong variations in weather conditions. Competitors may have to contend with hours of high-altitude sunshine, only to then find themselves facing strong winds and driving rain and with a snow-covered mountain pass to cross. Such extremes represent a major challenge to the runners, adding both physical and mental strain. “Out on the trail you’re mainly up against yourself, pushing your limits, overcoming your fears. It’s a real expedition and you know that you’re going to be facing big problems and that your physical qualities won’t be the only thing that decide if you win or lose – it’s what goes on in your head that counts,” says Dominguez. He should know. His 2017 victory came in a new record time of just 67 hours, 52 minutes and 15 seconds.
While there are no compulsory stages, the trail is divided up by seven life bases where the runners can shower, eat, drink and sleep. This is also where the contestants find their drop bags with their gear, which get transported from one life base to the next. Between the bases there are 43 checkpoints with food and drinks for the trail runners. They can also sleep here, but for a maximum of two hours, then they are woken and sent on their way. Most competitors, however, don’t give much thought to sleep as they set out to complete the Tor in the shortest possible time. Many run throughout day one and the first night without so much as a minute’s sleep. Even at the later stages, many restrict themselves to a couple of hours’ sleep before heading off to the next life base.
Needless to say, not everyone can cope with such conditions that push contestants to their limits and beyond. In most years, only half of those who set out on the trail complete the course. The others drop out along the way, injured or exhausted. Of the 850 runners who lined up for the 2017 issue of Tor des Géants, 491 crossed the finish line. In winning last year’s event in record time, Javi Dominguez allowed himself a total of 35 minutes’ sleep. “When I crossed the finish line I hated the race,” said Dominguez. “But a few days later I changed my mind and realized what a wonderful experience this run had really been.”
The next TdG starts at midday on September 9, 2018, and runners have until 6 p.m. on September 16 to complete the demanding course – 150 hours. For an impression of the race, click here.