“If you do not suffer, it is not the Tor."
Temporarily etched in the snow somewhere along the route, the message is everything that the Tor des Géants race stands for. Signs like these provide a bit of inspiration to all those who brave the tribulation.
When Ashok Daniel, 26, crossed the finish line on 16 September, he not only earned the tag of a “Géant", or “giant", for the mammoth endeavour, but also became the first Indian to finish the epic race.
Epic, because there are few foot-races that are so demanding. The 330km loop runs through the Aosta Valley in north Italy and must be completed within 150 hours—essentially, less than a week. This translates to running around 53km a day.
But this is a course that climbs along ridges and slopes, through passes and cols—and to a maximum altitude of 3,300m—before dropping down to the valley, only to climb yet again.
While dealing with the roller-coaster terrain is one thing, facing the brutal mountain weather is another, especially after sundown. By the time he had finished the race, Daniel had gained a total elevation of 24,000m. To put the feat into perspective, it’s similar to scaling the height of Mt Everest (8,850m) a staggering three times.
Until a decade ago, Chennai-based Daniel would have admired a race such as this from the comfort of his couch. But when he faced a Herculean task that afflicts the best of us—that of losing weight—he decided to put on his running shoes.
“I was around 90kg (in 2007) and brought it down to 58kg in the next six months. I’ve been doing ultras (distances longer than a marathons, which are 42km) for the last five years—the first, a 100-miler in Scotland called the West Highland Way," Daniel says.
“I was drawn to this sport due to the environment and the culture of trail-running, which I found attractive and which fit in with what I believed. Training and racing has also been rewarding as a result."
“I’m an intellectual property lawyer at the high court of Madras. It’s a stressful job, so running in the mountains is my release, and I like the balance."
He now has 57 trail ultras under his belt. In preparation for the Tor des Géants, he ran the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB, 166km) last year, following it up with the Ultra-Trail Unseen Koh Chang (100km) in Thailand in February, and the Old Dominion in Virginia (161km) in June. He also trained at altitude in Kodaikanal, Ooty and Manali.
“It’s a balance, as you have to slow down your training while maintaining volume so as to not injure yourself. The focus was always on more vertical gain than mileage," he says. “You are out there for seven days with little sleep and a lot of fatigue. Your experience and training is the only thing that can keep you safe."
The Tor is considered a single-stage race despite its length, with aid stations—called life bases—at every 50km stacked with resources, including beds for a quick snooze (of course, at the risk of missing the next cut-off). No runner can afford to stretch out and recover from the day’s run.
The demanding terrain meant Daniel couldn’t afford to switch off at any point. Rain made the surface slippery, and wind-chill sometimes saw temperatures dipping to minus 12 degrees Celsius at night, forcing runners to wear crampons to navigate the frozen slopes. The climbs were savage and technical, and at the 192km mark, Daniel even contemplated dropping out.
“I never looked at the whole race—only focused on sections, as it’s important not to get too ahead of yourself. Small things need your attention, such as your feet, and nutrition. There were no easy sections and it just kept getting harder. But that’s what you can expect from the toughest mountain race in the world. The last two days were hard, especially with hallucinations at night as I had slept little," he recalls.
On the last night, at minus 6 degrees Celsius, it was the pull of the finish line that drew Daniel. Over the last pass, he saw a familiar face in an Italian mountain guide.
“He told me: ‘Ash, you’re a Géant now!’ It’s only then that it started sinking in, as I admired the view of Mont Blanc from Col Malatrà. Since you’ve already gone through a lot, you become comfortably numb knowing that you’re going to make that finish line," he says.
Daniel completed the loop in 147 hours, 41 minutes and 49 seconds. Only around 55% of 860-odd competitors finished the gruelling race.