Scottish athlete Debbie Martin-Consani is a highly experienced and accomplished ultra distance runner. While podium places and mileage records are usually at the forefront of her mind, when she started the Montane Tor de Geants in the Aosta Valley, Italy, earlier this month, her aim was to make it to the finish line.
This might sound like a rather simple gaol but when it’s a race as famously tough as the Tor de Geants, reaching the finish is a huge achievement in itself.
What is the Montane Tor de Geants?
The race is claimed as one of the world’s toughest with breath-taking statistics including 330kms of non-stop, unsupported running over 25 mountain passes and with a total billed ascent of 24,000 metres. That’s the same as going up and down Mt Everest almost three times.
In fact, Debbie’s end results show the total ascent to be 31,000 metres “with all the ups and downs between the mountain passes”. (That is 3.5 times the height of Everest.)
The rules state: “The Tor des Géants does not impose any compulsory stages and the winner will be the runner who completes the race in the shortest time, making his or her own decisions on when and how long to stop for rest and refreshment.”
The race takes place in the Aosta Valley, which is Italy’s smallest region. It is surrounded by Europe’s high peaks, such as the Mont Blanc (4810m), the Matterhorn (4478m), the Monte Rosa Massif (4634 m) and the Gran Paradiso (4061m).
The cut off time for the Tor de Geants is 150 hours, which is just over six days. In most years, only 60% finish. This year 47% of the 800 starting athletes dropped out. So it’s not difficult to see why Debbie’s goal was to finish rather than to race others.
Debbie’s build up to the TdG race
Montane-sponsored Debbie is a veteran of ultra running with a decade of experience and some formidable results. She has represented Scotland and Great Britain in 100K and 24-hour races. She is also no stranger to endurance, with victories including the 145-mile Grand Union Canal Race, Devil o’ the Highlands, Lakeland 100, White Rose 60, Thames Path 100, South Downs Way 100 and North Downs Way 100.
Yet the furthest she had run before the TdG was 153 miles over 30 hours in the Spartathlon race in Greece.
She said: “That meant the TdG would be a less of a step into the unknown and more of a giant leap.
“Yet, I really wanted to give this race a go. My favourite thing about ultra running is the endless opportunities and finding new ways to push the boundaries and your self-imposed limits. The TdG scared me and that was part of the motivation to do it.”
As well as the decade of ultra distance running, this year Debbie was more focused on training in the mountains. She said: “I ran a 24-hour race (World Champs) in July, so I knew I had the endurance for the distance. Then, I spent the two months prior to the race going up and down Wainwrights and Munros. A triple Ben Lomond session was a classic session. My aim was to include lots speed hiking in my training.”
Debbie admitted that it had been a long time since she approached a race with the biggest fear being not finishing. She said: “The TdG, to me, was more of a challenge than a race. I guess people who had done it before were chasing times and positions, but all I focused on was completion.
“The race was going to be far longer than I’d ever run before. For example, I’ve never had to factor in sleep into or race – or even gone through a second night.
“Then there is the high altitude and weather extremes. It’s more like a big exercise in self-care. But above everything, I really wanted to finish. I’m pretty stubborn, so nothing short of a limb falling off would have stopped me.”
A very friendly event
Debbie said that one of the highlights of the race is the community feel and support. She says: “When you arrive in Courmayeur you know it’s a big thing for this area. All the shops display signs and posters about the race and even my hotel manager wanted to take photos of me before I left on race morning.
“Everyone is so supportive and excited, so it’s wonderful to be part of it. There’s also a lot of support around the whole route. Everyone knows what’s going on.
“I was also so grateful for the amazing volunteers. When I had rough patches they cared for me like I was their child. They could not do enough for the runners. You can tell they really love the event and how important it is to this area of Italy.
“There was one sort-of funny moment, however when an English family found me half asleep on the trail. They had no clue what I was doing. I think they thought I was homeless!”
A very tough race
First there is the physical side of the race. Debbie says: “The terrain is relentless. It’s either up or down and some of the climbs can take hours, with the highest being 3300m. Considering that Ben Nevis is 1345m, it was way more than I’m used to.
“The route was mostly dry trail and rocky paths, with lots of technical descents. It’s the Alps after all. Despite how hard it was I didn’t miss the bogs and wet trails we have in Scotland.”
Debbie’s legs and feet coped well. She said: “I didn’t even have any DOMS after the race but I did have a sore ankle. The pain came out of nowhere on the second day and I struggled to run on it for a four hours. Then a medic strapped it up and it was totally fine.
“It’s funny with long distances races, as something can bother you for a while – then it moves on to something else. My lungs hurt pretty early on and I found breathing quite difficult. I think it was a combination of the scale of the undertaking, the altitude and cold air.
“It was manageable though but I coughed a lot on the last day. It wasn’t until I finished the race that my lungs and chest really hurt.”
While the days were fine and clear, this meant the nights were cold. This hit Debbie badly on her fourth and final night. She said: “When I left the life base (main checkpoint) at 11pm it was already below freezing. I had to climb up to 3000m and I didn’t have the energy to fight the cold.
“It was a long and uncomfortable night and all I wanted to do was sleep. By the time I reached the checkpoint at dawn I was a shivering, blubbering mess. The volunteers soon sorted me out with pasta, soup and heaters.”
The mental challenges of the race hit Debbie the hardest. She said: “I was doing the race unsupported, which was way harder than I had anticipated. My head was all over the place. Many times, I lost the ability to think for myself, so everything took so much longer.
“At one life base I spent about 90 minutes packing the same things into the same pack that I had been carrying for days. It’s hard to think what you will need for the next 12 to 24 hours.
“In the end I mostly at checkpoints – there were 40 in the race – and slept when I couldn’t stay awake any longer. Over five nights I had only seven to eight hours sleep in total.
“The sleep deprivation and insufficient food consumption definitely took their tolls. It was a huge learning experience and if I do anything of this scale again, I would do things very differently.
“I got things wrong quite a few times during the race and let myself get too cold, too tired or too hungry and then had to deal with those problems.”
Yet Debbie said she knew from quite early on in the race that she had a good chance of finishing. She said: “Weirdly enough, once I’d settled into the race and I was only on the second mountain pass of 25 I knew I could do it.”
Debbie finished the TdG in an incredible 127 hours 32 minutes and 59 seconds. She started on Sunday September 10 a 10.20am and arrived back at Courmayeur on Friday September 16 at 17.52. She was the 18th female and first British woman. Her position overall was 162nd out of 461 finishers.
Of those that started, some 406 did not make it to the finish line.
Debbie said: “I was delighted to finish. I never at any point thought I was racing or competing against others, it was my own personal challenge; a bucket list event for me. I had done what I set out to do.
“Looking back there is a lot I would do differently. I underestimated the importance of sleep. I also wasted far too much time in aid stations. I should definitely have eaten more. I doubt I was consuming enough for a normal day, let alone a day in the mountains.
“After finishing I swore never again, but I’ve already forgotten that. There’s nothing of that scale that takes my fancy just now but I have some other goals for next year including a Bob Graham Round and UTMB. The opportunities are endless in ultra running and I really love that about this sport.”
The top runners in the TdG
Coming home first in the Tour de Geants 2017 was Javi Dominguez (ES) in a new course record time of 67:52:15. First for the ladies and 11th overall was Lisa Borzani (IT) in 89:40:24.
First Brit was Paul Wathan, who finished on the Thursday at 20:39.