Running Tor des Geants: Courage isn’t Always Quite What it Seems

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A week ago, I finished running Tor des Geants, the epic endurance trail race in the Italian Alps. “Running” might not be the ideal word, since all of us 711 starters spent most of our 4-6 days fast hiking, shuffling, walking, and basically finding any way possible to keep moving forward. Only occasionally did most of us run. Why? Because, well, Tor is long. Really long: 356 km with over 30,000 meters of climbing, from its start and finish in Courmayeur, Italy, at the base of Mont Blanc. It will explode your mind and crush your soul if you try to take it all in.

After Tor, I posted some photos on social media, and felt awkwardly inundated with comments of praise and much talk about courage and daring. Awkward, because Tor is nothing if not a self-centered undertaking. It’s a personal adventure, an exploration of inner and outer places. (And it never disappoints. But that’s a story for another time. I’m working on it.) And, though I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, the idea of courageousness felt misplaced– welcome, for sure, but somehow off the mark.

Something about the public reaction felt amiss. Lunch this past week with my stalwart pal Hillary Gerardi helped clarify why.

A runner moves through the Italian Alps.
Whatever you do, keep moving forward: A runner on the move during Tor. (Photo: Sam Hill.)

Certainly, showing up at the starting line of Tor is an act of daring for every person there, no matter his or her abilities. Even in a fair weather year like this one, forty percent of participants drop. The carnage is real, wide-ranging, and often eye-popping: this year featured broken and sprained limbs, a hernia of the diaphragm, neurological issues– even a viper bite– all amid more routine reasons to call it quits like stomach issues, failing kidneys, and sleep deprivation that creates marionettes who run alongside during long Tor nights, keeping you company. (Yes, that one really happened. Thanks for the sharing, KK.)

That willingness to show up at Courmayeur on the appointed day and hour is really just one small step in a lifelong series of small steps. I have always thought of finishing Tor– this year was my second go-’round the course– as the equivalent of getting your PhD in trail running. And you don’t simply decide one day to get your PhD. You graduate high school. You decide to go on for further study. Maybe you stumble through a Master’s degree. Perhaps you teach for a while or do research. Eventually one day, you find yourself applying to PhD programs. And so on.

I think courage is the same.

The American Buddhist monk Pema Chodron talks frequently about concentric circles of challenge. “There is nothing wrong with Netflix,” she says, “But if you spend the rest of your life watching Netflix… there’s no growth.” Take a moment and listen to Pema explain it better than I could, in this video.

When I look back on my years of trail running, I see those small steps all over the place: daring to run Sierre-Zinal, my first full-on, big-time, Kilian’s-at-the-start-line-and-so-am-I Alps trail race. Daydreaming about and then running Ice Trail Tarentaise, a glacier-filled high altitude race through a wild region of France. Then the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc series of races. Skyraces (nb: helmet required) so vertiginous I dared not take my eyes off the course. And so on. And behind each one of those small acts of daring are moments of curiosity, dreaming and a small dose of courage, whether heading out in the rain for a big day of training, or pushing hard through a night of trail running. Along the way our skills and confidence grow.

Doug Mayer at the finish of Tor des Geants with his dog and friend Hillary Gerardi.
Your dog, a good pal surprising you, and the finish line after 356 km. What on earth could be better? (Photo: Sam Hill.)

In a talk for a conference, Hilary points all this out– that courageousness, seen up close, is often made up of many “small c” moment of courage. I have her, and this talk, to thank for clarifying my thinking about Tor.

In the stumbling, incoherent week after Tor, as I tried to make sense of the big question– what just happened out there– her talk resonated.

Coming to Col Malatra during Tor des Geants.
The final climb. Doug Mayer approaches Col Malatra on his last morning during Tor des Géants. (Photo: Sam Hill.)

There is a disconnect between what social media onlookers see, and the baby steps of courage we each take in many facets of our daily lives. Add those little steps up, and you’ll find that being at the starting line at Tor is not necessarily a bold act of daring. It is the logical conclusion of a decades-long series of small choices to — just like Tor itself– keep moving forward.

The good news, as Hillary points out, is that just as fear is contagious, courage is contagious too. In that premise, I find one of the many beautiful aspects of trail running. Sometimes without knowing it, you find yourself taking small steps forward. Over time, it adds up. The contagion is within, and without, emboldening for each of us and those around us.

That is my story. I am no athlete. I always sucked at team sports. But I have a deep and abiding love for trail running. Like an imperceptible rising tide, its impact has been overwhelming, ultimately taking me around the Italian Alps, over dozens of high passes, on a crazy journey both inward and outward. And looking back from where I’ve come, I’m grateful for all those little steps I’ve taken. They add up. The results surprise you and leave you shaking your head in wonderment.

What’s your next little step?

Where will it take you?

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