Australian Trail Runner, Sandra Suckling, has taken on the world’s most extreme ultra marathons over the past few years, including the 4Deserts Race Series, Camino Portuguese and Badwater, just to name a few! Her most recent feat, best known as Tor Des Geants, was one she’ll never forget. In September, Sandy made her way from Melbourne, Australia to a small town in northern Italy named Courmayeur, which is nestled in the Aosta Valley Region. In fact, Courmayeur is located at the foot of the southern side of Mont Blanc – one of the world’s Seven Summits – so it’s safe to say this is well and truly mountain territory. Perfect place for a 330KM nonstop ultra marathon, right?
Pictures by Sandra Suckling
In short, Tor Des Geants is absolutely brutal. Even the race directors themselves describe it as the “perfect stage for understanding your limits”. The total length of this race is 330KM plus 24,000M of climbing which must be competed in less than 150 hours with cut off checkpoints throughout. There are 43 refreshment points where runners can eat, sleep and seek medical attention if needed, and an additional seven life bases (LB) which are larger than the refreshment points. If a runner doesn’t meet any of the various cut off points by a certain time, they’re withdrawn from the race.
“This event starts way before you even get there,” Sandy explains. “The planning is not to be underestimated. You need to spend many consuming hours on just that… a plan. You need to have a plan of when you are going to stop and get some some sleep, how much gear you are going to need (check out Sandy’s gear list here), the extremes of weather, what food you are going to take, and the never ending list just grew and grew. Be assured, things will go wrong”.
Having completed Badwater Ultra in California’s Death Valley only a few months before, Sandy knew this was going to be a massive ask. But with support from her coach Andy, husband Col and American friend Linda who was also tackling Tor Des Geants (their dream was to cross the finish line hand in hand both holding their country flags) she knew it was within reach.
According to Sandy, “Arriving in Courmayeur is breathtaking. The mountains sit in the background of the village and all I could think of was in a few days I will be in those mountains. Wow. I was nervous, but there was also a great level of excitement”.
Sandy, Linda and Linda’s friend Amy who was going to assist them at the checkpoints, enjoyed a few hikes up to altitude to acclimatise and take in the breathtaking views. Something they knew they wouldn’t have much chance of doing over the next few days.
And then that was it. It was race day. “The start line was incredible,” Sandy says. “The streets were lined with spectators, the music was playing and there was an incredible buzz in the air. 800+ competitors ready to go. There was a sea of colours exploding in front of me as everyone squashed in together ready to start. I had goosebumps as they counted down. 10, 9, 8, 7…. 3, 2, 1…. we were off! A lap around the streets and then out towards the hills and trails. The climbing started straight away and already one could get a taste of what was ahead.
“Linda and I stayed together as was the plan, but like everything, plans don’t always go together. As we climbed, the altitude was really taking a toll on Linda, but she was strong so just kept moving up and up for hours while we climbed the first peak. I was keeping an eye on my watch and when we hit the downhill it was time to get the running legs on and make up some time. We were both very conscious of the cut off time at 5am, so Linda made the call and told me to go ahead and she’d meet me at 5am.
“Night fell, the air got cooler and it wasn’t long before I came into the barrier cut off at the life base. I was four hours ahead, so figured I could have some food and an hours sleep to refresh before Linda arrived. Surprised to see Amy while I was eating, the look on her face said it all. “What happened?”, I asked. Linda hadn’t made the cut off and I was devastated. I could feel the tears in my eyes. OK Sandy, you need to regroup. After a quick 45 minute sleep I was on my way, but not without a heavy heart. Did I do the right thing when Linda told me to go without her?”
Over the next day or so, Sandy was tracking along strong. She bumped into a number of fellow Aussies out on the trails, which helped in keeping the spirits high. There were some extremely steep climbs and huge cliff faces, but she continued to overcome each scary moment. At one point, Sandy and fellow Aussie runner Kieron learnt of an upcoming cut off point which they didn’t know about, so in a mad panic, quickly tried to make it there in time. Sandy had a nasty fall in which she hurt her knee and jarred her neck, but while trying to fight off the tears, pulled herself up off the ground and made it to the cut off with a few hours to spare.
She says, “The days and hours all started to roll into one and at times through the darkness of the night I could feel myself jolt as I was falling off to sleep while still moving forward in whatever way I could. The mountain passes are high and I could feel my lungs begging for air, my knees starting to hate me on the downhills as I thumped down big drops and skipped over rocks and boulders. My neck was worrying as it seemed to be hard to straighten and my chin just wanted to rest of my chest. It forced me to slow down, but I didn’t dare think about anything other than moving forward and reaching the next checkpoint.
“Fog rolled in on some of the mountains passes and it become incredibly hard to see. The rain had intensified and the coldness of the night meant more layers to keep warm. Ohhhh, did I love my ioMerino thermals! My body was tired beyond what I could even have imagined. My mind started playing tricks. Rocks looked like heads, I saw a kettle sitting on a rock, weird looking animals were coming in and out of vision, I saw a huge igloo type of tent with two cattlemen lying beside it, it was somehow lodged into the cliff face. I couldn’t understand how they got in there to get the tent up. I rubbed my eyes, squinted and blinked lots. Was it real or not? The truth was I didn’t know anymore, but just accepted whatever I saw – fact or fiction.
“I kept looking at my watch, but didn’t seem to know what the time was anymore. Then I’d panic and have a feeling of terror. Did I set down and go to sleep out here in the dark and cold of the night? Then I’d pinch myself and slap my face to wake up and just keep moving.
“The fog was now so thick, we were still climbing and I felt so physically exhausted. My neck was in full spasm and the tears rolled down my face as I slipped and face planted grasping onto rocks. I tried to stand but the rain made underfoot slippery and I started to slide and scream. “Oh my god. What am I doing out here?” I yelled to myself. “You stupid, stupid girl. Get up!” I just couldn’t and started sobbing more. I was so angry at myself.
“From behind I felt a pair of hands latch onto my jacket, pull me up, put me on my feet and push me back over onto the trail. I started moving forward saying “I am so sorry, I am so stupid”. In the depth of the night, I turned to say thank you, hardly being able to see out of my beanie and raincoat which were half pulled over my eyes, but no one was there. And for some reason I said, “Is that you Col, are you there?” My stubbornness just kept giving me the drive to continue no matter what. I knew Col was flying in from Australia and just wanted to get to where I could see him and for him to be so proud when I crossed the finish line.
“I had come through the night with a group of eight and when day broke we came into the Refugio so sleep deprived, we just wanted to get some food to warm us and sit for a few minutes. We were then told we would not make it to the next cut off. I sobbed and said “yes I will!”How dare they tell me I won’t make it, how dare they tell me to stop, I thought to myself. I have to make it. I want this so bad.
“Crying from my neck pain, I had to refocus. I WAS going to make the next cut off, so I powered on. By now the neck was so bad, I was barley able to lift my head, or my chin off my chest. The snow began to fall. It was magical. As the snow kept falling, it seemed to calm me.
“A finish line photo of what had been an epic adventure would have been magical, but it was not meant to be. In a sobbing state, I couldn’t make the 1.30PM cut off after 264KM and I was withdrawn from the event. I was physically and emotionally exhausted. Depleted of everything. The lack of sleep and intense pain from my neck and a few errors in my tired state finally had put a stop to this dream. Col had only flown in last night. The disappointment was intense in my heart, but it was time for me to get some medical attention and finally give into these mountain giants. They had won.
“They organised a helicopter to take myself and another injured competitor to the hospital. I couldn’t stop sobbing. I felt I had failed myself and everyone else who helped me make this journey.
“The snow was falling heavier and the fog had rolled in so thick it was tricky for the chopper to land. Eventually it did and flew us to the hospital. As I looked out the window, I saw some of the most epic, magnificent mountains. I giggled to myself and thought… Wow. Sandy! Just look down there at what you have just experienced. Something so amazing. A journey within a journey. I could only wonder, have those giants destroyed me? Or had I had an experience of a lifetime? One I had learnt many new rich lessons from?
“Landing at the hospital, I was wheel chaired in and it wasn’t long before my wonderful husband and cherished friends Linda and Amy were by my side. After being checked out and X-rayed, I left hospital with a neck brace. The next day at the presentations and awards, Col gave me a rose and told me that was my award. I just smiled and thought, did I really fail? After all, what is failure? The journey was simply amazing.