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The Faces of 2021 Tor des Géants

The Faces of 2021 Tor des Géants

Sep 19, 2021

The Tor des Geants– a 330 km trail race with an incomprehensible 33,000 meters of vertical– takes place around the high cols and mountains above the Aosta Valley, Italy, each September. The week-long event has just wrapped up, and one thing that you can say about Tor is that there are always a few stories to share.

2021 was no different, with the highlight being a new course record. In the men’s race, Italy’s Franco Collé of Gressoney– through which the Tor runs– finished in 66 hours and 43 minutes, breaking the previous record by nearly an hour! This was also Franco’s third Tor win. Jonas Russi of Italy came in second, over two hours behind Franco. The lead pair ran together, pushing each other for much of the race. In fact, it wasn’t until the third and final night that Franco pulled away. Coming in third, Petter Restorp of Sweden, currently living in nearby Chamonix, France, finished in a time of 76 hours and 36 minutes. This was a huge effort from Petter, particularly given that he had set a new Fastest Known Time speed record on the Haute Route from Chamonix to Zermatt, Switzerland, just one month earlier. 

In the women’s race, current course record holder Silvia Tregueros of Spain came in first with a time of 89 hours, 57 minutes and, like Collé, this was also her third victory at Tor. Silvia finished well ahead of Melissa Paganelli of Italy, who took second place nearly four hours later. Nicky Spinks of the UK finished third in at 101 hours, 16 minutes. (Earlier in the summer, Nicky set a new Lakeland 24-hour record, a challenge that involves running to the summit of as many peaks in England’s Lake District as possible. Her strong result is even more remarkable, given the significant demands of the UK accomplishment just four weeks earlier.)

As with all races, some of the best stories are found behind the lead runners. There are, after all, hundreds of others that are all pushing themselves to the edge of what body and mind can handle. There were injuries with which to contend, stormy weather to manage, and the inevitable “sleep monster” that leads to some crazed decision-making, and even falling asleep while moving forward.

There were other Tor races this week, including 30km, 130 km and the new 450km mountaineering epic, Tor des Glaciers, in which hardened mountain runners navigate along an unmarked route in higher, more technical terrain around the Aosta Valley, while occasionally crossing paths with the 330 km Tor race course. The biggest headline from this race was immediately evident to all watchers: Canada’s much-adored Stephanie Case winning the women’s race and placing third overall.

As with all races, some of the best stories are found behind the lead pack. There are, after all, hundreds of others that are all pushing themselves to the edge of what body and mind can handle. There were injuries with which to contend, stormy weather to manage, and the inevitable “sleep monster” that leads to some crazed decision-making, and even falling asleep while moving forward.

Run the Alps’ Tour Manager, Steff Lefferts, and I spent this past week out on the course helping to crew our work partner Doug Mayer. During this time, I had the opportunity to take a few photos of the faces of the Tor. I hope you enjoy this selection!

At the start line of the Tor. Master of Ceremonies Ivan Parasacco told runners that from here forward, they will be Ambassadors for the Aosta Valley. He told them to take their time, stop to absorb the natural beauty of the valley, look after the environment and share in the passion that residents have for this region.
After a warm and sunny start to the race, by day three the weather had changed and the runners had to contend with wetter and cloudier conditions. Seen here is Swedish runner Petter Restorp on the final 10km of the race, en route to Refuge Bertone.
Bad weather can make the long nights seem even longer. As Doug Mayer comes into Gressoney life base, a little later than expected, he shook his head about the challenging condition of the trail above. Wet weather and hundreds of runners’ feet had transformed it into a slippery nightmare.
Sometimes you just need to sit down for a few minutes. On a cold morning at a high col, this runner told me how he had only had an hour of sleep over the past four days.
Inspiration may get you to the start line, but it’s a steely determination that gets you through Tor. The trails are relentless and unforgiving with only occasional, easier “single track” like the section shown behind this runner.
Imagine spending six days with your partner with only 10 hours of sleep, total. A couple that races together, stays together and forms a new bond through the shared challenges.
The look of joy after a long descent out of the mountains — and minutes before arriving at a Tor life base.
Designated “Life Bases,” with a wide range of runner support services located in key towns along the loop, are the only areas where a runner’s crew can be on hand to offer extra support. Here, a fraternal “Trailer Assistant” massages his brother’s tired legs. Every time I saw this helper, he said that he thought his brother was on the brink of quitting. I saw this runner cross the finish line on Saturday with a huge smile on his face.
Because of local Covid restrictions, runners were only permitted to sleep in the life bases. In prior years, they could also get a bed in the dozens of high mountain huts that dot the Tor route. For some this was struggle – the constant hustle and bustle of a Tor life base is not always conducive to sleep.
Ten minutes prior, John Sharp had sprinted into the life base in Ollomont, Italy, to arrive before one of the mandatory time cut offs. He had thought that he still had 2 hours before he would risk being “timed out.” Staying on top of details like this is hard after a series of tough, sleep-deprived days on the trail.
Time out for calories. The staples at the 7 Tor-operated life bases and huts en route were pasta, risotto, dried meat, cheese and broth.
Not every runner has a crew to support him or her along the long loop. Everyone is, however, entitled to one yellow “Tor bag” filled with spare food, clothing, and more. This bag is transported by the Tor organization to key valley-based life bases along the route.
There are small aid stations set up in the mountains along the Tor route, some with full shelter and heat. Here, a runner asks Run the Alps’ Doug Mayer if the Tor is any easier the second time around? His answer? A resounding “No!”
A runner contemplates the descent from a high col, and the start of another long night of moving quickly through big mountains.
As I hiked past this runner, I told him he only had one more climb and 15km to the finish line back in Courmayeur, Italy. His face lit up – and in this one instant, I saw just how much this event means to its participants.
A broad smile was evident on this one runner, despite the obvious toll that the race has taken on other body parts.
Finishing joy. Black Diamond sponsored trail runner Hillary Gerardi surprises her friend Doug Mayer moments after he finished. Mayer’s Labradoodle, Izzy, joined for a group hug.
More than 700 runners from 50 different countries were at the start line. Not everyone could have a loved one meet them at the finish.
What does running 330km looks like, for your feet? Here is one data point.
Sam Hill
Originally from the Lake District, in the North West of England, Sam Hill is a full-time freelance International Mountain Leader. Besides guiding running tours with Run the Alps, his work often takes him further afield. He’s a big believer in doing what you love, and does exactly that through guiding and photography.